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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Oct 12, 2010 - 5:02:16 PM


Fianna Fáil minister says his department should be abolished; Ireland in the Age of the Spoilsmen
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Oct 4, 2009 - 5:05:58 PM

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1950 All-Ireland Final - Seán Flanagan, captain of the Mayo Gaelic football team receiving the Sam Maguire Cup Photo: Mayo GAA

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. As rare an event, was a recent public example of patriots who did not take public money despite the reality that so many others in Ireland appear to plunder the public purse with impunity, when they have an easy opportunity to do so.

At the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis in 1970, the Minister for Lands Seán Flanagan (1922 – 1993), who was captain of the Mayo All-Ireland football winning teams in 1950 and 1951 and was honoured in 2000 by the GAA as a member of their Gaelic Football Team of the Millennium, was accorded a standing ovation when he proposed that his own department should be abolished. In current times, two Fianna Fáil ministers have joined a legion of vested interests in opposition to the Bord Snip/McCarthy report proposals on reducing public spending.

The public could be forgiven for thinking that the Oireachtas is the biggest vested interest of all.

"If you give me a week, I might think of one," was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's devastating response to a reporter's question at a press conference in August 1960, during Vice President Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, on whether the president could give an example of a major idea of Nixon's that was adopted by the administration.

The Irish public would hardly need a week to wonder about the significant accomplishments of two Cabinet ministers since 2002 or their current proposals or lack of them, on fixing the public finances: Éamon Ó Cuív has been Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs since 2002 and Martin Cullen is in his fourth portfolio since 2002, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The McCarthy report proposed that the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should be abolished and it recommended that the future of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism should be examined but in the meantime, total savings of €104.8 million should be achieved including €17.7 million to be cut from the Sports Council’s budget.

ÉamonÓ Cuív dismissed UCD economist Colm McCarthy, who chaired the officially known Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, as an "economist from Dublin 4."

The South Dublin postal region "Dublin 4," has become a metaphor for the liberal urban middle class and the minister is very familiar with the area.

Ó Cuív, son of a UCD professor and grandson of the founder of Fianna Fáil, Éamon De Valera, was reared on Herbert Park, one of the most expensive enclaves in Dublin 4 and Ireland.

Martin Cullen also hasn't much time for the economist.

“He’s not elected, he doesn’t represent people, he’s not in the fulcrum of policy formulation,” Cullen has said.

Besides the evident lack of humility for sharing responsibility in the monumental mismanagement of the economy, these same people are part of a political class that shows little enthusiasm for changing the spoils system at a time when sacrifices are expected from others.

Baby steps have been taken on expenses in response to the revelations of uncontrolled extravagance at the State training agency Fás.  Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue who has become synonymous with lavish spending of public funds, said last February: "While it is widely acknowledged that there is a real need for efficiency in the running of a modern democracy and Parliament, there must also be some recognition that Members of the Oireachtas need to be provided with the resources to serve our constituents when asked to do so. The challenge for us is to do this in a wholly transparent and open way which can bring greater confidence to the system."

Besides the massive expense claims in recent years and pay that is almost double that of New Zealand MPs and equivalent to the pay of United States senators, there is no evidence whatsoever, that additional staff for TDs, research resources and some 20 committees, has improved the operations of a Parliament that is shuttered for up to six months each year.

It's striking that despite the economic crash, there is little appetite for significant change across the political spectrum -- be it in the spoils or governance systems.

The Green Party is desperately seeking to be identified with more substantial policies than lightbulbs but in a few days of negotiations on a new programme for government, what can be realistically expected but aspirations on electoral reform and reductions of the number of TDs? The focus appears to be on grabbing headlines.

While such changes would be welcome, serious attention should also be on the process of governance including the glacial pace of change; a system of limited accountability where the buck stops nowhere and the Victorian era culture of secrecy on public spending, that protects the insiders.

It's also striking that the Opposition parties have had nothing of substance to say on significant reform.

If political parties are unprepared for reform on entering government, then the usual routine of commissioning reports will be the default response and required change will not happen.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said last October that his first Budget was a "call to patriotic action."

Is it any surprise that the call fell on stone deaf ears?

Last month, the Department of Finance disclosed that fees of over €500,000 were paid to 14 members of the Commission on Taxation.

Two members of the commission, Brendan Hayes of the trade union SIPTU and Feargal O’Rourke of Big 4 accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, requested that no fees at all be paid.

Given the culture of spoils and gilding the lily, the refusal of fees seems almost perverse.

In the past, some have argued that excessive ministerial and Oireachtas spending on themselves; advisers, constituency helpers - -  senior ministers have about 120 at their disposal - and so on, is not significant in a €60 billion budget.

However, when the lack of prudence extends across government to waste of hundreds of millions of euros on dud computer systems; a farm waste management scheme which rockets from €248 million to €1.1 billion; the commissioning of hundreds of reports from consultants and so much else, the culture becomes one of easy money. So when the trade unions demand benchmarking, they effectively push an open door and the cost in a few years becomes several billions on public pay and pension costs.

Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote on the last three decades of the nineteenth century in his renowned book, The American Tradition, which was published in 1948: "From the business of industry the business of politics took its style. Accumulating wealth and living richly, the industrialists set the model of  behavior for the less scrupulous politicians. The wealth they acquired and enjoyed set standards of consumption and emulation; overflowing into politics, it multiplied among politicians opportunities for pecuniary enrichment. Standards of success in politics changed. It was not merely self-expression or public service or glory that the typical politician sought--it was money. Lord Bryce found that the cohesive force in American politics was 'the desire for office and for office as a means of gain.' The spoilsmen looked upon political power as a means of participating in the general riches, of becoming wealthy in their smaller ways and by their lesser standards, as did the captains of industry. Never before had the motive been so strong; never before had temptations been so abundant."

In recent decades in Ireland, the spoils system has operated on a different scale to America's but it's not dissimilar, with overtones of New York's infamous Tammany Hall and a massive extension of the opportunities for patronage as the numbers of State agencies or quangos grew to an estimated 800, providing opportunities for thousands of appointments.

Having got used of the spoils, the political class and its dependents are not easily weaned off them, including a system where public pensions can be paid to people who are also drawing a full-time public salary.

The last thing to surely expect is patriotism  - - and that's from the very top.

SEE also Finfacts article:Political and economic reform in conservative Ireland and the promise of an "everlasting boom"

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