Irish General Election 2011: 'All changed, changed utterly' since 2007 or did it?
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Jan 23, 2011 - 9:16 AM

Printer-friendly page from Finfacts Ireland Business News - Click for the News Main Page - A service of the Finfacts Ireland Business and Finance Portal

Jan 22, 2011: Taoiseach Brian Cowen at a press conference in Dublin where he announced his resignation as leader of Fianna Fáil, but he hopes to remain Taoiseach until the first meeting of the 31st Dáil Éireann.

This is our anchor page for coverage of the General Election, due to be held on Feb 25, 2011.

Irish General Election 2011: Vote for single party Fine Gael majority government on Friday

Irish General Election 2011: Much has changed in Ireland since the last general election in May 2007 but much hasn't in the conservative society and the line 'All changed, changed utterly' from William Butler Yeats' poem 'Easter 1916' would surely be out of place despite the human misery wrought by monumental economic mismanagement.

I wrote in 2007, recalling as a youth reading a number of American journalist John Gunther's (1901-1970) series of "Inside" books that I had got from the Bandon library - - a great public service.

There are two items I remember from Inside Latin America, which was first published in 1939. Gunther recounted how the drunken Bolivian president General Mariano Melgarejo had in 1870 thought that the new British ambassador could be brought down to earth by ordering that he be strapped naked, facing backwards, on a donkey and paraded around La Paz.

The other story also involved a donkey. Politicians in some Brazilian town were so discredited that some citizens nominated a donkey for mayor and the ass won.

It's said that the camel seldom sees his own hump and when it comes to Irish politics it is not always easy to discern who are the donkeys - - the politicians or the voters?

To paraphrase the nineteenth century English politician Benjamin Disraeli, every country is an organised hypocrisy to some degree and few have the capacity to confront inconvenient truths that conflict with received myths.

Disraeli said in a speech in the House of Commons in February 1863: "Before the civil war commenced, the United States of America were colonies, and we should not forget that such communities do not cease to be colonies because they are independent...I cannot conceal from myself the conviction that whoever in this House may live to witness the ultimate conclusion of the consequences of this civil war will see, whenever the waters have subsided, a different America from that which was known to our fathers, and from that even of which this generation has had so much experience."

We inherited the British parliamentary system, their relatively corruption-free civil service system and the culture of Victorian secrecy in the governance apparatus. 

In 1986, the late UCD constitutional law professor and Fine Gael TD, John M. Kelly, said: "Ireland's political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over... The challenge is to evolve structures - - within which the people can be drawn to individual and community responsibility for their own development."

How little has changed in 25 years or in the 89 years since independence in 1922!

What hasn't been addressed in public debate is that the slow-motion response to the banking crisis which culminated in the EU-IMF international bailout of Ireland last November, can be linked directly to the governance system of limited accountability where the buck appears to stop nowhere; the glacial process of change which happens at all only when there is a crisis; the alien concept of conflict of interest; the very rare incidence of resignation on principle; the lack of parsimony in respect to public funds, a reflection of a colonial mentality that Disraeli's contemporary William Ewart Gladstone complained of in 1859 when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer was being pressured by Irish MPs to maintain a subsidy for a Galway-Newfoundland mailpacket service but he accused them of "plundering the public purse" and finally, the veil of secrecy on public spending which protects insiders.

The Irish love to talk and argue and evidence from online fora shows that there is much interest in the banking crash with its gallery of villains but the key issues of reform get little attention.

We have in the past highlighted the importance of transparency on public spending but such issues bore people and the latest State agency, NAMA, responsible for toxic property loans from the bubble years, has continued the Department of Finance's Victorian-era secrecy on public contracts.

Believe it or not, there is no cross-departmental information available on many categories of spending even though the annual public procurement budget is €17bn.

Spending by local authorities is another big black hole.

Taoiseach Brain Cowen is a man without vision who would not be expected to question well established routines.

As a minister in several governments, he went with the flow and has not been the author of one single innovation of significance, since his election to the Dáil in 1984.

In the Irish system, that was not an issue of any importance.

Cowen claimed in November 2009 in the Dáil, that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was being abused by long-winded requests.

He said public servants were being forced to spend an inordinate amount of time "trawling through" files when they could be doing other work.

"It is an expensive and time-consuming aspect of Government work," he said.

"I have no problem whatsoever with the legitimate use of the Freedom of Information Act for individual citizens or, indeed, for others,

"However, the idea of the department trawling every question that comes in from people who, perhaps, regard the departments of State as a source of generating information was not within the contemplation of the Freedom of Information Act and, to be honest; it is an abuse of the process,"
he added.

Cowen would likely be surprised to know that in well-governed Norway, even individual tax returns are publicly accessible online; "trawling through" files seems so Victorian!

An illustration of how little has changed in Ireland since the economic crash is the stand-off between the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and University College Dublin (UCD) in respect of €6m in unauthorised payments to staff.

UCD president Dr Hugh Brady warned in a letter to the HEA that an attempt to sanction the university would be “inappropriate, counter-productive and of dubious legality."

UCD has refused to refund the payments to senior academic staff.

Last September, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported on big university pensions deficits, in part due to the extensive practice of adding extra pension years for academic and administrative staff, as if there was no cost to worry about.

What Trinity College termed a 'legitimate expectation' coupled with the deficit at the free spending State training agency, FÁS, has amounted to a taxpayer bailout of  €1bn.

At an Oireachtas committee hearing last Thursday, Tom Boland,  the chief executive of the HEA was asked by Fianna Fáil TD Michael McGrath, whether any sanctions were to be imposed on the individuals involved, particularly those who had approved the additional payments, given that they had been told by the authority that these were “unlawful.”

Boland said there would be significant difficulties in recouping the money from the individuals who had been overpaid and that the question of sanctioning those who had approved the payments was a matter for the boards of the universities in question - -  comprising insiders and political cronies.

Here again we have the pass the buck culture and in an echo of the silence during the rampant bubble years, normally voluble academics have nothing to say in public.  

Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party have made proposals on political reform.

It is clear that the reaction of both conservatives on the Left and Right to the proposal that the powerless legislative ornament known as Seanad Éireann be abolished, means that any progress on reform will only be achieved if the expected victors in the March 11th election move fast to implement change.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand are well run small countries with unicameral parliaments; only a fool would argue that Ireland's part-time parliament is a model for a democratic system by comparison. 

One incumbent of more than three decades compared the proposed end of the Irish Upper House with the way the Nazis behaved in Germany in the 1930s. While in itself, the abolition would not be a seismic change, it would however put vested interests on notice that other cherished sacred cows of the orthodoxy could be in peril. Strange as it may seem, a Fianna Fáil minister once called publicly for his department to be abolished - - a rare event in the Irish political system where the modern Age of the Spoilsmen has eclipsed the notion of public service first and self-interest second.

The system of local clientism gives citizens the illusion of access to power but it's the vested interests who have the power in the Irish system.

If the new government does not implement radical change and emulate the best in the small well-run countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, then the destiny for Ireland is a return to long-term high unemployment and emigration.

Despite the rise in unemployment by about 200,000 - -  the equivalent of more than 2 full Croke Parks before accounting for dependents - - the issue of unemployment in Ireland appears to be a less urgent one than in the United States.

Despite the enormity of the economic crash, the vested interests of the conservative Right and Left have made no voluntary concessions for the common good.

No university president has come forward and said that more could be done with less.

The progress of talks on the implementation of the Croke Park agreement on public service reform is unknown; a Papal conclave would emit some smoke signals from time to time but according to The Sunday Independent last November,  documents released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the implementation body met twice in July, twice in September, once in October and once in November, racking up just €114.62 in the cost of refreshments and an annual fee of €29,888 to its chairman PJ Fitzpatrick.

The newspaper said it appeared that little headway had been made in getting civil servants to give up their allowances and other perks.

The Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) objected to Department of Finance plan to abolish 30-minute 'bank time' to cash cheques, even though most salaries are paid electronically, and to eliminate privilege days at Christmas and Easter. 'We have made it crystal clear to Finance that there can be no question of taking privilege days off CPSU grades given our low level of leave,' the union said in an internal memo.

By the autumn, if the glacial pace continues, expect the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to put fire under the new government on the issue.  

The mass unemployed have become effectively invisible and the traditional trade unions have made common cause with their counterparts representing protected professions, in defending privilege.

Apart from not having job security, the majority of private sector workers do not have an occupational pension; those who do face big pension fund deficits.

Multimillionaire tribunal lawyers are continuing to make hay as public contractors; medical consultants can charge over €200 for a 15-20 minute consultation; an insolvency firm quoted NAMA €800 per hour for an assignment and was allowed  hide behind a Victorian veil of secrecy; GPs in Ireland get paid €38.95 to administer the seasonal flu vaccine to patients. In the UK GPs get paid £7.51 (€8.30) for doing the same job and the State health insurer VHI has to hike premiums by as much as 45% to pay for featherbedding.

The National Competitiveness Council says that Irish medical consultants are the highest paid in the OECD area (comprising all the world's developed countries), earning almost double the salaries in countries such as Finland and Norway.

Norway is Europe's richest country and it has a sovereign wealth fund valued at in excess of $500bn and Ireland is technically bankrupt!

Ireland's trade union for the rich, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, says it was established to promote, encourage and support the advancement of the practice of medicine, in all specialties and areas, and the improvement of the Health Services in Ireland.

It says it also seeks to promote and protect the interests of medical and dental hospital consultants in Ireland.

'There are over 1,800 members of the Association and it is widely recognised as the leading representative voice for the profession in Ireland,' it adds.

As expected, the interests of its members is not its primary goal!

In 2007, the German ambassador to Ireland, Christian Pauls, raised hackles when he made some disparaging comments to visiting German businessmen on the host country including citing junior medical consultants' rejection of €200,000 a year posts on the basis that this sum was 'Mickey Mouse' money.

He said that he was at the National Concert Hall when an announcer appealed for the owner of a 1993-registered car to move the vehicle because it was blocking an entrance.

'Of course no one moved,' said Pauls. 'All the Irish are driving 2006 and 2007 cars. For all I know the car is still there.'

The average age of a car in Germany in 2007 was 8 years.

- - Michael Hennigan

Finally, last October, the International Budget Partnership released the Open Budget Survey 2010 (pdf), the only independent, comparative, regular measure of budget transparency and accountability around the world. Produced every two years by independent experts not beholden to national governments, the report reveals that 74 of the 94 countries assessed fail to meet basic standards of transparency and accountability with national budgets.

Ireland wasn't included in the sample but it wouldn't have made the top ranks which were taken by: South Africa, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.

74 of 94 countries assessed fail to meet basic standards of transparency and accountability when it comes to their national budgets.

  • The IBP surveyed 94 countries and found that 40 countries release no meaningful budget information.
  • The worst performers include China, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, and newly democratic Iraq, which provide little to no information to their citizens about how the government is spending the public’s money.
  • IBP found that only 7 of the 94 countries surveyed release extensive budget information. Those top-tier countries are: South Africa, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.

There has been nearly 20% improvement in the average performance of the 40 countries that have been measured over three consecutive Open Budget Surveys, which is a positive sign.

  • The Open Budget Index (the OBI) uses objective, internationally recognized criteria to give each country transparency score on a 100-point scale.
  • IBP found a 9-point increase in the average OBI score (from 47 in 2006 to 56 in 2010) among the 40 countries surveyed in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
  • Some of the most dramatic improvements came from previously low-scoring countries, such as Mongolia and Uganda, which still do not meet best practices but have improved over time.

Governments can improve transparency and accountability quickly and easily by publishing online all of the budget information they already produce and by inviting public participation in the budget process, the IBP says.

To see improvements in transparency, public engagement, and oversight in the short term, the IBP recommends that:

  1. Governments should make public all the documents they produce, which would require virtually no additional effort or cost by the governments involved but would dramatically improve the openness of budgets in large parts of the world;
  2. Legislatures begin to conduct public hearings on the budget; and
  3. Auditors establish mechanisms for getting public input on problems with specific programs and what should be audited.

In the longer term, the IBP recommends a movement toward a global norm on budget transparency and participation that codifies broadly accepted principles and guidelines. Such a norm would provide civil society organizations, the media, and legislatures a powerful tool to leverage improvements within countries.

Other recommendations include:

1. At the very minimum, countries that currently provide no or scant budget information should publish their Executive's Budget Proposal, Enacted Budget, and Audit Reports, and legislatures in these countries should begin to organize public budget hearings prior to approval of the budget.

2. Countries should strengthen the authority, independence, and capacity of budget oversight institutions, and the voice of the public should also be allowed as a further check and balance.

3. Donors should strongly encourage budget transparency in the countries to which they provide aid by offering incentives to countries that demonstrate better budget transparency practices and providing technical assistance to countries seeking to make their budget systems more transparent and accountable.

The Open Budget Survey is the one and only independent, comparative, regular measure of budget transparency and accountability around the world, produced by independent budget experts not beholden to any national government.

The Survey measures whether governments produce and disseminate to the public 8 key budget documents required by international good practices, and it examines effective budget oversight and public participating in national budget decision making.

  • 59 countries were surveyed in 2006, 85 countries were surveyed in 2008, and 94 countries were surveyed in 2010, all using internationally accepted criteria to produce an objective ranking of transparency called the Open Budget Index.
  • In the 2010 Survey these experts completed the questionnaire’s 123 questions based on the factual state of budget transparency in their countries. These answers were then: 1) independently reviewed by two anonymous experts who also had no association with government, and 2) reviewed by IBP staff who checked the citations and comments provided to justify the researchers’ answers. In addition, the IBP invited the national government of 88 of the countries covered in the 2010 Survey to comment on the questionnaire completed for that country. Finally IBP staff members refereed the comments from the peer reviewers and the governments that provided comments and determined the final answer in consultation with the researchers.

Greater Transparency enables better oversight, better access to credit, better policy choices, and greater legitimacy.

  • Without access to information legislators, auditors, civil society groups, media, and the broader public cannot effectively participate in decision making nor can they hold the executive to account for the use of public resources.
  • Transparency and public participation enhance the credibility of policy choices and the effectiveness of policy interventions.
  • Lack of transparency can lead to the selection of unpopular and inappropriate programs and to corrupt and wasteful spending.
  • Budget transparency can benefit countries financially, since more transparent budgets tend to have better access to international financial markets and lower borrowing costs.

Data reveal a strong correlation between lack of transparency and accountability and countries that rely heavily on oil and gas revenue, receive significant amounts of foreign aid, and have authoritarian governments.

  • The 24 countries assessed that are dependent on oil and gas revenue had an average OBI 2010 score of just 26 out of 100.
  • The 32 aid-dependent countries surveyed had an average OBI 2010 score of 30 out of 100, which is 14 points worse than countries not dependent on foreign aid.
  • The 21 countries classified as "authoritarian" regimes by the Democracy Index received an average OBI 2010 score of 17 out of 100, while the 14 "full democracies" scored an average of 72.
  • There are also some geographic correlations: The US and Western Europe tend to be more transparent, while the Middle East and Africa tend to be less transparent, with other regions of the world falling in the middle.

While these correlations exist, a number of notable exceptions and surprising results demonstrate that any country can achieve transparency and accountability if its government makes it a priority.

  • Notable exceptions to these correlations include: South Africa, which was the top performer of any country; India, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine, which are relatively low-income countries but perform relatively well; Colombia, Mexico, and Indonesia, which had OBI 2010 scores that were two times as high as other countries that rely on oil and gas revenue.
  • While neither country is up to par, newly democratic Afghanistan scored 21 points higher than newly democratic Iraq.
  • China is becoming a major donor of foreign aid, but itself is among the least transparent countries in the world, scoring just 13 out of 100.
  • Saudi Arabia and Malaysia both are relatively high-income countries, but Saudi Arabia scores just 1, while Malaysia scores 39.
  • Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, and Yemen, increased their scores substantially by making available on their websites the budget reports that they have previously produced but had made available only to internal government audiences or to donors.

The next in this series will be a focus on media coverage and factless journalists.

© Copyright 2011 by