Business

Saturday 27 May 2017

Senior civil servants must be held to the highest standards

SINN Fein finance spokesman Pearse Doherty appears to be a bright fellow who is making a good fist of representing his party in the Dail.

The 'Financial Times' recently described him as the de facto leader of the opposition and it is hard to quibble with the moniker when the rest of the opposition is so disorganised, financially confused and dishonest.

It was, therefore, disappointing to see him take a swipe at John Moran following his appointment as secretary general of the Department of Finance.

Mr Moran is best known for his recent (and obviously envy-inducing) stint as French property developer and juice bar owner, but the Sinn Fein attack was levied at his previous position which involved cleaning up a financial mess in his former employer's New York office.

While the Zurich unit was fined, there is no suggestion that Mr Moran did anything other than fix a problem that was not of his making.

This could also act as a description for his present role where he must also fix half a dozen problems that are not of his making while also rebuilding a department that has become so demoralised that it is no longer able to function properly.

The late Brian Lenihan had many failings but he was good at picking men to run the great institutions of the State. Patrick Honohan is the best governor of the Central Bank for decades.

His highly paid deputy Matthew Elderfield is another success as are the half dozen other senior appointments in the NTMA and NAMA who owe their jobs to Mr Lenihan.

Michael Noonan has proved far less inclined to make appointments. Almost uniquely among cabinet ministers, he has no special adviser to offer a view distinct from the civil service.

He has also made few changes to positions that are in his gift such as the public interest directors on the bank boards.

Appointment

Mr Moran is Mr Noonan's first big appointment and it was made in the teeth of considerable opposition from inside the department.

While Mr Doherty was wrong to criticise the appointment based on Mr Moran's career to date, he was right to raise the topic in the Dail. It seems strange that such important decisions can be made on a whim with almost no oversight.

As the Government finally prepares to give Dail committees real budgetary oversight for the first time, it might also be an idea to give the same committees the right to scrutinise appointments that will have a long-lasting impact on the country's administration.

The present Government is not reform minded. Asked recently why no ambassadors to the BRIC countries have any commercial experience, Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore replied blandly that this is not the way we do things here.

It is equally true that we have a long tradition of keeping civil servants out of the limelight.

This made some sense when they received modest salaries and had modest responsibilities but this is not the case today when the world is complex and most secretary generals are paid far more than their political masters.

It is time we held our leading civil servants to the same standards as their nominal masters.

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