Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Striking a balance on political interference

We have a habit of complaining about political interference. That is understandable really. Politicians often make a mess of things and abuse situations when they interfere. The Cahill plan to save Aer Lingus in the early nineties worked because it made the politicians back off and leave the running of the company to the people in the industry. We have had situations of phone tapping, we had a Minister for Justice and Communications that was determined to try and destroy RTE as he perceived them as biased. We had health boards that were run at the behest of politicians. We still have grave doubts over the locations of primary care centres after alleged political interference last year. One only has to mention the word ‘planning’ to make the whole nation heave a sigh and shake their head ruefully. The list of examples is and endless stream which helps convince us that political interference is never a good thing.

Is that really the case though? I am convinced that there is a balance to be struck. The problem is that a bad politician will act in their own self interest and abuse a situation. At the same time we will suffer if good politicians become convinced that they should always steer clear. In the late ’90s it became fashionable to set up ‘independent bodies’. No matter where you looked there was another independent body springing up. The purpose of these was to create distance. Ministers were not to be held accountable and blamed for decisions, strikes, problems and activities. The Minister would simply become a conduit to ‘raise the matter’ with the appropriate people. The best example of this was the HSE, particularly under the stewardship of Minister Harney. It all seemed a good way to do business. I often thought it was the perfect example of the Bertie Ahern leadership style, where compromise and distance replaced decisiveness and speed. Procedures became more important than results.

Now, the next step was of course the appointment of people to the boards. In an ideal world the idea of a minister making such appointments makes a lot of sense. The Minister should have a voice they can trust at the table. A person who will help to ensure that the elected governments views and objectives are always kept in mind. The reality was different. Instead of it being a job it became a reward. People were not appointed to one board they were appointed to several. No longer did these individuals see their role as somehow bringing something to the board or aiding in government plans, it was instead their reward for previous work done. Therefore getting something out of it was the main objective rather than seeing it as a new role where they had to prove themselves. On the other hand, Ministers gave out these roles and then quite happily distanced themselves from everything. If decisions were taken they did not want to know. After all you can’t be blamed for something you were never told about.

We certainly do not know all the story as regards the banking crisis. However, all the evidence so far points in one direction. It was what I call the ‘golf club syndrome’. All the lads knew each other. Each one thought the other was a great guy. It allowed for groupthink to penetrate. If we all keep saying it it must be true. If there’s a rumour of an issue in a bank then we don’t haul them in or look for information. Instead, the Minister asked the Department Secretary over lunch, to talk to the Central Bank. The Central Bank has a chat with the Regulator when he pops in. The Regulator picks up the phone to the Banks CEO and asks if everything is OK. The CEO says it is. The message is relayed back and everyone is happy. Next item will be the banks invitation to a golf classic or a conference. Take them at their word. Don’t interfere; these guys know what they are doing.

Charities and boards go wild on payments, retirement packages and top ups but nobody sees a reason to mention it at the time. Worse, no politician sees a reason for them to be questioning such things as guardians of the tax payer. They don’t want to know. The less you know the less you can be blamed for.

Irish Water is the latest in this line with its raft of consultants and its laughing yoga. Minister Hogan told everyone that he doesn’t ‘micro mange’. Of course not. The best escape any minister can have is to ‘know nothing of this matter’ and to be ‘appalled when it was brought to my attention’. Not once did anyone think that in such a vital project that Ministers needed to interfere a bit by asking questions, demanding reports and ensuring satisfactory answers.

It is quite clear that there are politicians who abuse their power and that will never change. We must simply guard against it. Always question their motives and ask them for answers. It should not be a reason for politicians to back away from decisions and responsibility. When they do we can see that other people are equally capable of abusing a situation, and they carry on using public money with absolutely no concept of public accountability. Such people also lack any kind of judgment when it comes to public opinion and seem completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people. Perhaps before taking up any such role we should ask an individual to spend 6 months on the dole just to let them understand why value for money is important.

In any event we must strive for a balance. Where politicians abuse their power we must ensure it is reported and uncovered. We must also demand that politicians stop abdicating their responsibility as protectors of the public and start demanding answers and actions rather than throwing their hands in the air and sighing with the rest of us helpless sods.

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