Friday, September 4, 2015
THE Taoiseach, flanked by his gushing ministers from both Fine Gael and Labour, may believe they have succeeded in presenting the interim Fennelly Report as a vindication of Enda Kenny, but there are precious few buying it. It is another example of the Government’s disconnect from the reality inhabited by the rest of us.
Fennelly didn’t say that Enda sacked the commissioner — true — but that was never going to happen. What the report made very clear was that it was the unprecedented late-night visit of the secretary general of the Department of Justice to the former commissioner’s home, organised by the Taoiseach, which was the “immediate catalyst” of his resignation.
In other words he jumped, in the very clear knowledge that if he didn’t, he was going to be pushed. The report is unambiguous in this, and, in fairness, as the poem goes: “A rose by any other name, still smells as sweet…”
Fianna Fáil was quick out the traps promising to table a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach. Sinn Fein went one better, including the attorney general along with the Taoiseach, in its no confidence motion, given the criticisms of her handling of the information which she had in her possession in relation to the unlawful recordings in Garda stations.
Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin
Of course titillating and all as this might be, it ignores the real issues exposed by Fennelly: That of the utter indiscipline and dysfunctionality at the tops of An Garda Síochána, that was the backdrop to the events on that fateful weekend.
Myself and Deputy Mick Wallace, with the help of Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, shed a light on how badly the force was being mismanaged, and how the blue wall of silence was being reinforced by those at the top. Fianna Fáil, who appointed Martin Callinan in the first place, stood by its man, choosing to target their criticisms on former justice minister Alan Shatter.
The reality is they were two sides of the same coin, both symptomatic of the toxic system of governance, or rather lack of it, of our police force, whereby the commissioner of the day is solely responsible to the minister of the day.
The real fallout from Fennelly is not whether the former commissioner was sacked but rather the systemic problems inside An Garda Síochána which meant he had to go, and more importantly the fact that these problems continue under the new commissioner and new minister. We are back where we were over a year ago.
The late-night visit was not just over the illegal tape recordings in Garda stations. It was on top of the penalty points scandal, the commissioner’s appalling treatment of the whistle-blowers, his public spats with the Garda Ombudsman Commission, and the growing cases of injustice and incidents of Garda malpractice that were being reported around the country.
The pressure was mounting, but instead of dismissing the commissioner and minister using proper procedures as a first step in delivering the reform that was becoming increasingly apparent to all, the Government chose to engage in slight of hand, scapegoating the commissioner as a figleaf to avoid transparency and accountability rather than a genuine effort to deliver it.
The new minister and commissioner looked and sounded different than the old, but it was an illusion of change, a stunt to avoid the necessary overhaul and transformation of the gardaí into a modern police service, freed from political influence, openly and transparently serving the public, with its consent. All of the old problems prevail.
Current serving Garda whistleblowers, who have made serious complaints including allegations of involvement of gardaí in the drugs trade, have found themselves isolated and harassed under this new regime, while those that they complained about have been promoted.
Not only that, but indisputable evidence that went to the new commissioner and minister — that a two-man senior Garda team carrying out an internal investigation into some of these allegations was responsible for leaking that information to the accused — resulted in no sanction. Rather, one of those senior gardaí was appointed by the commissioner to conduct a disciplinary hearing into a different complaint against the colleague to whom they had breached the confidentiality of the process. You’d struggle to make this up.
Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister, tries to make much of the fact that GSOC was given some extra powers to investigate the commissioner but the reality is that it remains as an organisation set up to fail without the necessary resources or powers to truly hold the gardaí to account.
Having taken on the role of the old Garda confidential recipient and assuming responsibility for dealing Garda whistleblowers, it has demonstrated its complete inability to deal promptly with these cases.
Meanwhile, rather than the necessary independent Garda authority that we were promised would be up and running in 2014, a watered-down version of even the Government’s original heads of bill was published prior to the recess. Rather than creating a genuinely independent authority, as a buffer between the minister and gardaí, the Government’s plans are for a toothless talking shop, subservient to the minister, unable to appoint the commissioner, and a far cry from the type of overhaul that took place even in Northern Ireland or Scotland. Not only that, but all of the members of the first authority are going to be politically appointed. That’s reform a la Fine Gael and Labour.
If lessons were learned and there was a genuine desire for reform, then these are the issues that would be pursued. Mick Wallace’s comprehensive Garda Authority Bill could be discussed in committee and moved to next stage as a first step in that process.
Of course they wouldn’t dream of doing that and the Taoiseach may survive the no confidence vote in the Dail but he faces a more severe test regarding whether the electorate has confidence in his Governance. His performance in this matter is going to make that vote harder to win.
Clare Daly is an independent TD for Dublin North
If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.
As a rule, men worry more about what they can't see than about what they can.
I had rather be first in a village than second at Rome.
In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.
It is not these well-fed long-haired men that I fear, but the pale and the hungry-looking.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
Fortune, which has a great deal of power another matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through every slight forces.
Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered
Julius Caesar (100 BC- 44 BC)
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Ireland, as it heads hurtling into the 21st century has learned little since it hurtled into the dawn of the 20th century. But the one thing that it has learnt better than most is to admit nothing, say nothing and in time it will all go away. At least that's the theory. For the most part it has worked in full or in part where at least the passing of time would hopefully have slightly diminished the horror of its crimes. We have to look no further than the Magdalene laundries and the Industrial/institutions that were were seeded and birthed from the collusion of the Catholic Church and the Irish government to see how this might have worked. And work it did: for 75 years of its 93 year history as a republic.
Then 800 babies and several unmarried mothers turned up in just one abandoned mass grave in Tuam County Galway, that had lain there unmourned, unmarked, unloved and almost undiscovered and began to tell their tale. Even this did not move the government in this year one teary eyed bit. It took the rest of the world to do that: to shed those tears, to give voice to the voiceless and give shame to the otherwise shameless. Yet Ireland had been telling the world for years that it lived in a democracy. Everyone believed them way back then except the Irish, and now it is the other way round. We live only in the shadow of democracy here today.
The lessons learned in the halcyon days of Church power and the craven kneeling electorate is to hold the imagined moral ground, to repeat a lie often enough that it can feed easily the needy masses. From those lessons, as the Church ebbed back into the background, the new political players came into focus wearing different robes. The rules though remained the same.
This year is not revealing in any way except for the question what is anyone going to do about it. They tell us things are getting better. Yes they are, for a chosen few.
For most of the rest of us, mortgage repossessions are up, migration of our young is barely down from last year, the massaged figures for the unemployed tells its own lie. We have a government elected on the promise of reform and change that changed nothing as we squirm under the payload of the debt that incurred because of its institutional corruption. That institutional corruption is more firmly entrenched than ever.
The police write their own rules now, encouraged by the fact that no one has been held accountable yet, so it is nothing to see here, move on. So much for whistleblowers stripped of their whistle. The Gardai are effectively above the law, for now.
Unless you live on a mountain in a cabin without electricity and surrounded only by sheep, then this week of the ‘usual passing of the buck’ entrenched with its natural unaccountability, will leave you jaded and cynical and bury your optimism for any person of moral character to step up to the plate. Time, and its healing and fading memories is what this government is shopping for. And they may just get it.
As we move ever closer to an election, to the few minutes when you think might have a choice, step back for a long minute before you cast your vote. Ask yourself how much more can you take and will your children have a future here. Are the tumbleweeds gathering on the edge of your village, your world. Just as all life is local, when a locality cannot even field a football team because most of them have already left these shores is a good hint that all is not well in the garden. Keep this in mind and this recent past for without these reminders we will have little hope there is a future starting with our families.
Now that the dust is settling on the story around the departure of the former garda commissioner, the question arises — what exactly has changed?
The publication of the Fennelly report into the circumstances surrounding the “retirement” of Martin Callinan has provided political cover for Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Martin Callinan and Enda Kenny
The former Supreme Court judge found that Mr Kenny did not sack Mr Callinan in March last year, an action that would have been illegal. Other findings are questionable, but what has also emerged is that Mr Callinan’s position was precarious anyway, owing to a myriad of scandals in the force at the time. Irrespective of how exactly he went, it might well be asked whether his departure signalled a new beginning in the force.
The scandals at the time included allegations about abuse of the penalty points system, the handling of criminal cases, suspicion that the offices of GSOC were being bugged and the treatment of whistleblowers. To a large extent these were cultural issues within the force and Mr Callinan was identified as being central to both the problems and the culture.
His departure saw his deputy Nóirín O’Sullivan elevated to the top job, on an interim basis first and then last November as the bright, new shining commissioner. Ms O’Sullivan was regarded as the best person to make the changes required to wash away the negative aspects of garda culture which had, over previous decades, periodically mushroomed into full-blown controversy.
Ms O’Sullivan’s appointment was welcomed. She was the first woman in the job. She had also spent her whole career in the force, rising through the ranks to the point where she was sitting next to Mr Callinan at the Oireachtas inquiry in January 2014 when he made the “disgusting” remark about garda whistleblowers.
She started well. A listening tour was organised to divine from the rank and file around the country how they saw things. She made a number of new appointments, ruffling feathers among some of the top brass, but any new broom wants their own people in place.
On a political level, her “comfort letter” to Sinn Féin TD Pádraig MacLochlainn last February, in which she stated that the IRA was not operational in the Republic, has come back to haunt her, but that can be put down to inexperience. It’s certainly not a hanging offence.
There are, however, other issues that suggest little may have changed since the departure of Martin Callinan. Last Sunday, RTÉ journalist John Burke broke a story about two garda whistleblowers who are very concerned at their treatment within the force.
Both whistleblowers are making allegations against a senior officer. Another senior officer was appointed to investigate the allegations made by whistleblower A last year.
Following a meeting between the whistleblower, his solicitor and the investigating officer, it emerged that some information made its way back to the accused senior garda. This inferred a connection between the accused man and the investigator.
Whistleblower A withdrew from the process after his concerns were conveyed to Garda HQ. How could he have confidence in a process in which the man he accused of wrongdoing was connected to the man who was investigating the matter?
Now it has emerged that the same senior garda has been appointed to investigate Whistleblower B’s allegations into the same accused officer.
Despite being informed of major concerns about the integrity of the other investigation, garda management has appointed the same man again to investigate the accused garda. All of which suggests that management regards whistleblower allegations with the same contempt as pertained previously.
The current scenario echoes somewhat with the treatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson back in the old days, before Nóirín O’Sullivan ushered in alleged change.
Both men were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to highlight wrongdoing, and an internal investigation into some of the allegations was subsequently exposed as a bit of a sham.
At the time of her appointment, Ms O’Sullivan emphasised that she wanted to hear about wrongdoing.
Maybe she does, but somebody making decisions at senior level doesn’t possess the same concern that the commissioner articulates about such issues.
Another matter that dogged the last days of Mr Callinan’s tenure was abuse of the penalty points system. More change was promised. Yet nearly six months after Callinan left, Sergeant McCabe produced evidence that little had changed in the system, even after O’Sullivan brought in new measures in June last year. Following another investigation, more changes were pledged, and it will be interesting to see if this brings about real change.
Ms O’Sullivan has brought about change in one area. A senior garda attached to the Garda Press Office is under criminal investigation over the leaking of information to a reporter. The senior garda was arrested earlier this year and is currently suspended from duty. Ms O’Sullivan appointed her own husband, Detective Superintendent Jim McGowan, to oversee the investigation.
A number of senior officers have questioned why a criminal investigation rather than a disciplinary process was invoked, particularly considering that the suspect was authorised to talk to the media.
Maybe Ms O’Sullivan is displaying a heightened regard for citizens who find themselves victims of garda malpractice. Maybe not.
What will be interesting to observe is whether the investigation into the leak over pending charges for 20 or so water protestors will be pursued with the same zeal. The news of the pending charges against individuals involved in the Jobstown protest against Tánaiste Joan Burton last November was broadcast on RTÉ on August 12. Three weeks later no charges have been brought , and none of the protesters informed.
Irrespective of the validity of pressing charges, the citizens involved have had their rights violated in an appalling manner. An Garda Síochána has launched an investigation into the leak, but it remains to be seen how vigorously that probe is pursued.
Ms O’Sullivan inherited a tough job. Any attempt at objective analysis of her progress is not easy as there are many within the force — and a few in media — who have already unsheathed their knives.
Despite all that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a case to suggest that she has made any serious inroads in reforming the negative cultural elements within the force.
‘If a party in any other jurisdiction were involved in such a variety of controversial matters, it might be thought unsuitable for office until all suspicion was dispelled’
First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and DUP North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds arrive at Downing Street, London, for a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire
The North’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, met David Cameron on Tuesday to convey his party’s concern about suggestions that the Provisional IRA has not gone away nor relinquished its association with Sinn Féin and that, in view of the murder last month of Kevin McGuigan, allegedly by current members of the IRA, Sinn Féin is unfit for membership of the Stormont Executive.
Sinn Féin has shown restraint in not raising the question of whether the DUP is a suitable party of government, given a string of controversies in which prominent members have allegedly been involved.
In early 2010, it became public that Robinson’s wife, Iris, had had an affair with a teenager and had obtained loans totalling £50,000 to enable him to finance start-up of a restaurant. However, she had not told Newtonabbey council, which gave permission for the restaurant to open, of her monetary interest. Mrs Robinson was a member of the council at the time.
Mrs Robinson was expelled from the DUP and resigned all her public offices: she was also a member of the Stormont Assembly and an MP at Westminster. The council was later to declare that Mrs Robinson had broken no rules. The matter remained, however, a source of embarrassment to the DUP.
Against almost all predictions, Mr Robinson lost his East Belfast Westminster seat in the May 2010 general election. It was widely assumed that his wife’s difficulties had been a factor in his defeat.
In July 2011, Red Sky, a company based in east Belfast, lost a £7million maintenance contract with the NI Housing Executive (NIHE) following allegations of sub-standard work and financial irregularities. It was claimed that the company had charged for work which hadn’t been done, including work on houses which didn’t exist. The firm, which contested the claims, went into administration. Members of the DUP, including Mr Robinson and DUP housing minister Nelson McCausland, then made efforts to persuade the NIHE to reverse its decision and bring Red Sky back on board.
The online news service, the Detail, revealed that McCausland had met with Red Sky representatives in late July 2011. Although the company was in administration, none of the administrators had been informed about the meeting. Three days later McCausland met with NIHE chairman Brian Rowntree and pressed him to reinstate Red Sky’s contract.
On the following day, Rowntree wrote to the permanent secretary to Mr McCausland’s Department of Social Development, expressing “serious concerns and misgivings”. He described the minister’s intervention as “incomprehensible”.
Meantime, McCausland’s special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, phoned Jenny Palmer, a DUP councillor and member of the NIHE board, to urge her to change her vote and support a restoration of Red Sky. She says he told her that she was “to do what she was told” by the DUP. She refused and is no longer a member of the party.
The involvement of Robinson’s son Gareth with the promoters of last September’s world title fight in Belfast between local boxer Carl Frampton and Spaniard Kiko Martinez has also raised eyebrows. The bout was subsidised by Stormont and Belfast city council to the tune of £300,000. Gareth Robinson says that he became involved only after the money had been secured. He denies ever speaking to his father about the event.
The event was also aided by the PSNI slashing the bill for policing by 86 per cent – to £5,000. The taxpayer picked up the outstanding rest of the bill – £30,000. No other recent event has enjoyed such favourable treatment.
The DUP may have questions to answer, too, about the “firesale” of Nama properties in the North. The Northern loans, valued at €4.5 billion, were sold for €1.5 billion to US venture capital company Cerebus.
In the Dáil in July, Mick Wallace claimed that the deal involved £7 million being set aside for payments to “fixers”. It subsequently emerged that such a sum had been deposited in an Isle of Man bank in the name of Ian Coulter, a partner in Belfast law firm Tughans, which was providing advice on the sale. Tughans has claimed it alerted the Law Society to the account while Coulter has asserted that he personally informed the law firm about the account.
The money has since been retrieved. Coulter left the firm in January.
Nama’s Northern committee supervised the transaction. The committee was set up following talks between Northern Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and his Dublin counterpart, the late Brian Lenihan. Wilson nominated former Red Sky director Frank Cushnahan and former NIHE chairman Rowntree to the committee.
Cushnahan and Coulter had made an earlier unsolicited approach to another US company, Pimco, to buy the Nama loans. Pimco had problems with suggested “fees” for third parties and withdrew, saying that after “due diligence” it had “decided not to . . . agree to any arrangement with those parties”.
Gareth Robinson’s company had been contracted to manage an event hosted by Tughans in 2012. He says neither he nor his company’s representatives had any involvement of any kind in the Nama sale.
Some of these matters remain to be clarified. But it can be said that if a party in any other jurisdiction was involved in such a variety of controversial matters, it might be thought unsuitable for office until all suspicion was dispelled.
Eamon Mc Cann
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.
Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.
We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw
I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy.
Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.
When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport; when a tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.
Lack of money is the root of all evil.
You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?’
Clever and attractive women do not want to vote; they are willing to let men govern as long as they govern men.
By George Bernard Shaw (1856 -1950)
It took a domestic disaster such as Hurricane Katrina to burst bubble of George W Bush
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: both the Republican establishment and the punditocracy have been shocked by his continuing appeal to the party’s base. Photograph: Jason Davis/Getty Images
There are many things we should remember about the events of late August and early September 2005 and the political fallout shouldn’t be near the top of the list. Still, the disaster in New Orleans did the Bush administration a great deal of damage – and conservatives have never stopped trying to take their revenge.
Every time something has gone wrong on President Barack Obama’s watch critics have been quick to declare the event “Obama’s Katrina”.
How many Katrinas has Obama had so far? By one count 23.
Somehow these putative Katrinas never end up having the political impact of the lethal debacle that unfolded a decade ago. Partly that’s because many of the alleged disasters weren’t disasters after all. For example, the teething problems of healthcare.gov were embarrassing, but they were eventually resolved – without anyone dying in the process – and at this point Obamacare looks like a huge success.
Beyond that, Katrina was special in political terms because it revealed such a huge gap between image and reality.
Ever since 9/11, former president George W Bush had been posing as a strong, effective leader keeping America safe. He wasn’t. But as long as he was talking tough about terrorists it was hard for the public to see what a lousy job he was doing.
It took a domestic disaster, which made his administration’s cronyism and incompetence obvious to anyone with a TV set, to burst his bubble.
What we should have learned from Katrina was that political poseurs with nothing much to offer besides bluster can nonetheless fool many people into believing that they’re strong leaders. And that’s a lesson we’re learning all over again as the 2016 presidential race unfolds.
You probably think I’m talking about Donald Trump, and I am. But he’s not the only one.
Consider the case of Chris Christie. Not that long ago he was regarded as a strong contender for the presidency, in part because for a while his tough-guy act played so well with the people of New Jersey. But he has been a terrible governor who has presided over repeated credit downgrades and who compromised New Jersey’s economic future by killing a much-needed rail tunnel project.
Now Christie looks pathetic – did you hear the one about his plan to track immigrants as if they were FedEx packages? But he hasn’t changed; he’s just come into focus.
Or consider Jeb Bush, once hailed on the right as “the best governor in America”, when in fact all he did was have the good luck to hold office during a huge housing bubble. Many people now seem baffled by Bush’s inability to come up with coherent policy proposals or any good rationale for his campaign. What happened to Jeb the smart, effective leader? He never existed.
And there’s more. Remember when Scott Walker was the man to watch? Remember when Bobby Jindal was brilliant?
I know, now I’m supposed to be evenhanded, and point out equivalent figures on the Democratic side. But there really aren’t any; in modern America cults of personality built around undeserving politicians seem to be a Republican thing. True, some liberals were starry-eyed about Obama way back when, but the glitter faded fast, and what was left was a competent leader with some big achievements under his belt – most notably an unprecedented drop in the number of Americans without health insurance.
And Hillary Clinton is the subject of a sort of anti-cult of personality, whose most ordinary actions are portrayed as nefarious. (No, the email thing doesn’t rise to the level of a “scandal”).
Which brings us back to Trump.
Both the Republican establishment and the punditocracy have been shocked by Trump’s continuing appeal to the party’s base. He’s a ludicrous figure, they complain. His policy proposals are unworkable, and anyway, don’t people realise the difference between actual leadership and being a star on reality TV?
But Trump isn’t alone in talking policy nonsense. Trying to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants would be a logistical and human rights nightmare but might conceivably be possible; doubling America’s rate of economic growth, as Jeb Bush has promised he would, is a complete fantasy.
And while Trump doesn’t exude presidential dignity, he’s seeking the nomination of a party that once considered it a great idea to put George W Bush in a flight suit and have him land on an aircraft carrier.
Those predicting Trump’s imminent political demise are ignoring the lessons of recent history which tell us that poseurs with a knack for public relations can con the public for a very long time. Someday The Donald will have his Katrina moment, when voters see him for who he really is. But don’t count on it happening any time soon.
Monday, August 31, 2015
With an election in the offing, a growing percentage are completely disillusioned with politics as it has been practiced by the main parties in this country for decades. Time and again we’ve had the merry-go-round of promises to do things differently when in opposition, and subsequent reneging when in government. In that light, MichaelClifford has compiled 10 ideas that might contribute to saving politics from total cynicism:
1. Verify election promises
One of the main reasons for cynicism in politics is the failure to fulfil election promises. Last time around, in the “democratic revolution” led by Fine Gael and Labour, promises were as in vogue as ever.
Bondholders would not be paid a penny more. There would be no introduction of college fees. Water charges were out.
These kind of promises were made by politicians wearing a straight face. The general attitude was say whatever it takes to get elected and deal with the fall-out afterwards.
That election was supposed to herald a new way of doing things. We know now that it was poppycock. The promises offered were simply undeliverable under the strictures of the Troika. In addition, even those that could have been kept would have to have been fulfilled at a cost to other, often more vital, services. So promises then, as in the forthcoming election, are largely redundant.
We also know that the electorate is a sucker for buying promises. Voters can’t help it. In this country in particular, there is a tendency to lap up what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.
With all that in mind, one solution is to have independent vetting of all election promises, and particularly those in the economic sphere. For example, currently Sinn Féin are proposing that water charges and the property tax be abolished, and that the respective bills be paid, to a large extent, by those earning over €100,000 per annum.
There are many who would conclude that this is socially just, but is it possible? Do the sums add up or is serious massaging done in order to make it look that way.
The other parties make similar promises, many of which appear dubious. Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil spokesman Michael McGrath suggested in the Dáil that the Fiscal Advisory Council should be mandated to cost the proposals of all political parties and independent candidates.
“To do so would be a great service to members of the public who will have to work out all the different noises emanating from the political parties about this or that being costed or not taken into account,” McGrath said. “Let the gospel be as per the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council when it comes to the election manifestos of different parties and the extent to which they are costed.”
That sounds like not just a sensible proposal, but one that is vital if election promises are to mean anything in the next election.
2. Fix ministerial terms
One of the abiding images of the previous government was the sight of the fleet of Mercedes and Audis arriving for a cabinet meeting in Farmleigh House in October 2010. The meeting was specially convened to discuss the extent and focus of savage cutbacks which were deemed necessary in light of the collapsed economy.
One by one, the Fianna Fáil ministers arrived at this repository of the Anglo Irish aristocracy, some of them waving to the peasants as they passed, completely unaware of the impression being conveyed.
The reality was these people had been in power too long to notice not just the optics but the reality of continuing to conduct themselves as if they were entitled to these trappings.
Most of those ministers had been in situ since 1997 when Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats came to power.
A minister is accorded huge levels of deference. He or she grows accustomed to getting their way. They are entitled to much of this on the basis of their position within a democratic system. But the potential to lose the run of oneself is enormous.
It is debatable if anybody is capable of maintaining a hungry appetite for a job over many years which demands huge levels of energy and mental and physical stamina. In the corporate world, some individuals manage to do so, but their results are plain to see in the bottom line.
The capacity for an elected politician to do so is much more restrained. Apart from anything else, new blood and some creative thought is continually needed in a job that has as its shareholders a whole nation. For that reason it makes perfect sense to have a strict time limit on service as a minister, and possibly even as Taoiseach, although the latter might present some problems.
A seven-year term would make perfect sense. This allows for a full term of government, and when it arises the chance to continue after an election for two years. Such a limit would lend urgency to ministers’ agendas.
The former minister for Education Ruairi Quinn looked to be a man in a hurry for his term in the portfolio, which ran from the 2011 election until his resignation last year. It was common knowledge that he had been lucky to get the appointment and he expected that he would be replaced in a reshuffle. The apparent result was an urgency on his part to get things done while he was there. And to be fair to him, he did achieve a lot while in situ. A little more of that would do no harm at all, and would ensure the dangers of groupthink and complacency were reduced.
3. Change the electoral system
Is it possible to have too much democracy? Is democracy defined by the intensity of the relationship between voter and representative? Should it be?
Questions about the nature of the proportional representation single transferrable vote electoral system we use here are as old as the system itself. This country is one of only two that use the system, the other being Malta.
Twice in the past, the electorate voted down proposals to change the system. On those occasions the biggest fear was that
a more streamlined system would lead to Fianna Fáil governments in perpetuity. That fear no longer pertains.
The argument for change is that the intensity of the relationship between voter and representative in the current system is damaging.
It means that party colleagues, standing on the same policy platform, are often the biggest rivals in an election. It ensures that all politicians are afraid of alienating practically all voters all of the time. This in turn often leads to inertia
There is also an argument that the current system ensures that TDs spend far more time in dealing with constituency matters than on national issues.
A huge volume of constituency work involves interacting with the public service on behalf on constituents, pursing matters which all citizens are entitled to.
The system thereby reacts to politicians in a manner that refuses to facilitate citizens, and candidates are often elected on the basis of how well they perform in this charade. The system also ensures the quality of some elected representatives is dubious, based largely on how well they can operate smoke and mirrors.
Another issue requires debateis whether a change in the system would lead to more stability than seems likely in the current political climate. Is it more democratic to have a real choice of electing from 10 or 12 viable candidates right across the spectrum, or does that just lead to greater instability?
At the very least, the system should be subjected to close scrutiny, and not just from politicians with a vested interest.
4. Demolish the doorstep
Former Fianna Fáil TD John O’Donoghue hitting the doorsteps in Milltown, Co Kerry, in 2011. Picture: Eamonn Keogh
The doorstep has been a fabled and mythical location in Irish politics. The step speaks to the politician, telling him exactly what he wants to hear, and he in turn conveys this to the wider public as evidence that he knows what he is doing.
Hence, the politician will say, “Well, the feedback I’m getting on the doorstep is that my policies are on the button”. Of course, the member of the public encountered on the doorstep is never around to verify this statement.
This stuff has been taken to a new level by the current Taoiseach. Enda Kenny does not have to visit the doorstep to be provided with ammunition to make a point, or back up what he is saying. Thus he said last January that his office had received calls from various people thanking him for a few extra bob in their paypackets. Later, when the calls were questioned, his spokesman said this wasn’t exactly as conveyed.
In dealing with Irish Water he has met a few people to whom he made a point, not least the man carrying a few pints in his two hands. “I said to him what he was holding in his hands would pay for water for him for nearly ten weeks,” he said.
Even when he was in opposition, good fortune found him running into people who told him what he wanted to hear. In 2009, in a debate on access to hospitals and health care he said: “I met a woman this morning who had driven from Co Cavan for an appointment in the Mater Hospital. She had no bus transport and eventually got a taxi in order to get to her appointment.”
Please, no more.
If politicians want to make a point, make it on its merit. If they have examples of somebody who agrees with this point, or has a story to tell to back it up, produce this person, or at the very least, give a name. Otherwise, it’s just waffle.
5. Appointments to state boards
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with John McNulty, a controversial appointment to the board of IMMA. Picture: Donegal Daily
There are jobs for the boys, and there are jobs for the girls. One of the traditional spoils of power since the foundation of the state has been patronage. State appointments are handed out to party supporters, or sometimes just friends of the minister in question. This has always been so in appointments to the 6,000 positions up for grabs.
These appointments don’t necessarily come with a salary, but they can confer some status on the recipient, which in turn can be used. And then there are the expenses, which tend to be gold plated.
The most obvious example of how little has changed came last September, when it emerged that a county councillor, who was being lined up for a run at the Dáil, was appointed to the board of the Museum of Modern Art in order to give him a profile in “culture”, to better allow him be appointed to the Seanad, which would give him a push towards election to the Dáil.
Enda Kenny and Minister for the arts Heather Humphries were tongue tied and twisted in attempting to explain away the appointment of John McNulty to the IMMA board. It was an old fashioned stroke, one more example that precious little had changed
The real problem was that this carry-on took place after the Government had put in place a cosmetic exercise that was supposed to ensure appointments were made by public application, and on merit.
That fob to the electorate didn’t work out. Less than 25% of state board appointments had been made following the new process. For the greater part, the Government continued to regard appointments as the spoils of election victory
Following the fall-out from the McNulty affair, the Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform Brendan Howlin introduced yet another reform
The new system includes guidelines on how appointments would be made, which Howlin said, represented “a sea-change” in how things were done.
“There will be independent vetting of all candidates and a short list drawn up independently by the (Public Appointments Service) and given to the line minister for final selection,” Howlin said in February on publication of the guidelines.
Maybe, maybe not. We already know that such a system pertains for appointments to the judiciary, yet some observers note the Government still manages to appoint legal people who just happened to have been supporters. Time and the next controversy will tell.
6. Commit to committees and make the executive more accountable
The unaccountability of the executive is a recurring theme in any examination of politics in Ireland today.
Far from conducting a “democratic revolution”, the current Government has actually regressed in terms of removing the Oireachtas as a check and balance against its power.
The establishment of the economic management council, consisting of Taoiseach, Tanaiste and ministers for finance and public expenditure concentrated greater power within a sub-committee of the cabinet.
Also, the share out of chairs and vice chairs of the various Oireachtas committees was done in a way that minimised the number of opposition figures in these roles.
Any meaningful reform will require that the committees have a proper role within governance. This would involve in the first instance the awarding of chairs in a fair and proportionate manner. A more important action, though, would be to enhance the role of committees in a manner that makes their input meaningful.
For instance, committees currently examine policy and legislation in a reactive fashion after the big decisions are made. This renders input marginal
Committees could be consulted at an early stage of policy formation, and all the various options thrashed out in public, properly weighed up and examined.
Such consultation is most important when dealing with financial matters, particularly the budget. In other jurisdictions the details and options for the budget are discussed in parliamentary forums, where problems can be foreseen and policy options parsed. Not here. Instead, it’s all reactive.
Unless the Oireachtas is given a proper role in scrutinising and formulating policy and legislation, all other reforms will remain largely cosmetic.
7. Elect the Ceann Comhairle
Sean Barrett Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil.
The MacGill Summer School tends to deal in the theoretical when it comes to politics, but this year a proposal was brought up that has every chance of being implemented.
Opening the school in Glenties, former minister for justice Michael McDowell went into detail on a proposal for the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. On the face of it, this doesn’t appear to be an earth shattering proposal. And it’s not. Before the last general election, all of the parties were in favour of a secret ballot to elect the speaker of the Dáil.
Then, when the election was out of the way, Enda Kenny proposed Sean Barrett and everybody said he was a fine fellow for the job. Which he is, but that’s neither here nor there.
If the election was by secret ballot, it would in the first instance ensure that the Ceann Comhairle was elected by the members rather than the government. This would give the Dáil greater muscle in its relationship with the executive.
It would also ensure that the Ceann Comhairle isn’t open to accusations by the opposition that he is favouring government, as has been the case in the current Dáil.
One of the great problems with the Irish system is that the Oireachtas is largely redundant in holding the executive to account. If the Ceann Comhairle was elected by the Dáil rather than the government it might make the slightest of inroads in rebalancing the power between these two arms of government.
However, as has been pointed out by McDowell, the time to act is now. If the next Ceann Comhairle is to be elected by secret ballot it will take a change to standing orders, which would have to be done by the members. That means that between now and Christmas a group of TDs – preferably cross-party – come together to request a debate to have the orders changed.
If such a scenario unfolds, it is unthinkable that any of the main parties would vote against it, considering they were all in favour ahead of the last election.
It would be a small step, but in a country where reform comes dropping with the urgency of a snail, any change has to be welcomed.
8. Open the veil
Alan Dukes, former chairman of IBRC
The recent saga over Sitesev and IBRC tells much about how the country is run, but in particular it highlighted the culture of secrecy operated by government, not to mention most agencies of state.
Catherine Murphy is an elected parliamentarian who asked legitimate questions in the Dáil about the sale of Siteserv. She didn’t get straight answers. Instead, she got Jesuitical responses which were designed to deflect her pursuit of the truth, and keep the real answers under wraps.
In total, she had to ask 19 parliamentary questions before receiving full and complete answers. And then, the only reason she accessed the truth was that the department was aware that she had submitted a Freedom of Information request that would have to be complied with.
The approach is typical for Government and most State agencies. The imperative is to protect the institution, even from the distant rumble of a potential controversy. The public, and their representatives, are treated not as citizens — of whom the state and its employees are servants — but as a potential threat.
None of this is unique to the current administration. Secrecy is a byword for governance in the state. When the Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the mid 1990s, the country was already lagging in the kind of democratic norms that ensure citizens are informed of almost everything that doesn’t impinge on the security of the state.
That was even too much for some politicians, and was restricted by Charlie McCreevy in 2003. The current Government has reformed the act to a certain extent, but that is a mere fig leaf.
What is at issue is the culture whereby Government does not believe it is incumbent on its members to keep everybody informed as much as possible.
The fall-out from this culture has ensured that controversies build up around what appear to be cover-ups, generating further controversy, and ultimately leading to calls for an inquiry of sorts.
Hence instead of openness and transparency in the political system we have a way of doing things that information is painfully extracted, usually retrospectively and at great cost. It also adds further cynicism towards politics as it is practiced here.
9. End focus groupthink and ensure that government takes the lead
Governing by focus groups has become a way of life.
The focus group in politics came into its own in these islands 20 years ago through Tony Blair’s New Labour. One of Blair’s main strategists, the late Philip Gould, perfected the science.
A group of voters is brought together and tested for responses to various policies.
Policy is then formulated accordingly on the basis that it is likely to attract votes.
This conforms closely to the great quote, “These are my policies and if you don’t like them, I can change them”.
Political parties on this side of the Irish Sea cottoned onto Blair’s electoral success and began to use focus groups extensively.
During Bertie Ahern’s time in government, focus groups were elevated to a sacred status.
Since the recession, focus groups have not been used as extensively simply because governments have been restricted in terms of policy and economic freedom.
Now, as the dawn of a new paradigm apparently beckons, the focus group is set to be brought out into the foreground once more.
Using focus groups as a compass thus means that governments follow rather than lead.
A passing fad gets elevated, a transient irritation among voters is regarded as a no-go zone. It means that the short-term is given priority over the long term public good.
It also leads to an echo chamber in which politicians armed with the most immediate concerns of the voter publicly declares his or her intention of dealing with this matter immediately.
This is the kind of politics that leads to auctioneering at elections, and pandering to short termism at the constant expense of the greater good. Focus groups definitely have a role in politics but their elevation under Britain’s New Labour, and subsequent embrace in this country has been a blight on proper governance.
At a time when leadership is sadly lacking, the relegation of the focus group might go some way towards bringing in a better politics.
10. Curtail parliamentary questions
Renua TD Terence Flanagan
Last June, Renua TD Terence Flanagan used a parliamentary question to ask if the Department of Social Protection cuts the dole of people protesting against the Government and specifically those involved in demonstrations against Irish Water.
It was a silly question. Flanagan must, or at least should, know that there is no basis for such a measure. Sanctions such as that could only be invoked a dictatorship. Yet, the question gained headlines and that was the objective.
It also necessitated time spent in the department in question responding to it. The question was far from the silliest or most irrelevant parliamentary question tabled in the Dáil in recent years.
Most if the questions asked concern constituents, and are largely asked in order to give the impression of doing something rather than actually getting something done.
It’s a costly charade. Each Dáil year, the volume of questions asked in parliament ranges somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000.
Some such questions are designed to shine a light on the machinations of State, the spending, the waste, the systems failures.
Most, however, are questions put forward on behalf of constituents, more often than not resulting in no action or change to the constituent’s circumstances. There are personnel in agencies like the HSE who are forced to spend large chunks of their day sifting through parliamentary questions and representations from TDs.
The cost of this? In 2008, an exercise by the Department of Enterprise came to the conclusion that a Dáil question costs an average of €200, which adds up to about €10m per annum. The cost associated with other forms of representations made by TDs is unknown.
This is what passes for bread and butter politics in our State. There are few limits to the number of questions a TD can table. There are no limits to how ludicrous or redundant some questions are. It’s all about giving the impression that the TD is acting on a constituent’s behalf, against the might and oppression of the State.
If curtailments could be put on the scope, extent and focus on parliamentary questions, TDs would be freed from expectation to provide this service for constituents. It would also mean that TDs could then concentrate on tabling the kind of questions for which the system was designed. And it would free up hundreds of personnel to do some constructive work for the public.
By Michael Clifford