Monday 24 October 2016

Absence of leadership is the worst part of crisis

Published 03/01/2009 | 00:00

QUITE a few people have had a merry Christmas and a great start to the new year. I don't mean anyone who has to work for a living. I mean that extraordinarily privileged class, deputies and senators.

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If you read the latest table showing the expenses each of them claims, you will have been able to work out a simple sum. Taking into account salaries after tax, and the profit made on expenses and allowances, the humblest backbencher can clear €100,000 a year, and I suspect that most of them do a lot better than that.

What do they do in return for the taxpayers' generosity? For generations now, it has been known that they carry out very little parliamentary work. The Dail and Seanad sit only occasionally. Right now they are on a 40-day break. Deputies spend their time running errands for their constituents.

Or do they? In the digital age (and some of them are wizards with computers, if with little else) the work is easy and not at all time-consuming. At one time, they used to tell researchers that they worked 80 to 100 hours a week.

Whatever about the past, they do not put in those hours nowadays.

But at least deputies are elected by popular vote and have constituencies to look after. Senators are not and do not. The Seanad is one of the most pointless and undemocratic institutions ever invented. I side with those who want it abolished.

In real life that is not going to happen, but we are entitled to ask why they are paid expenses. For the matter of that, why are they -- and local councillors -- paid anything at all?

The answer is, at one level, that our political class are very good at looking after themselves. Indeed, those who have the biggest "notions" think themselves underprivileged. People will remember Bertie Ahern for many reasons, but I for one will remember him for his complaint that he did not have a White House or an Elysee Palace to live in.

At a more important level, it suits the establishment to have docile and comfortable foot soldiers. And if they are professional soldiers, so much the better. Fear of an election, which carries with it the danger of losing a seat, is magnified.

Another inducement to loyalty is the proliferation of mostly useless committees, complete with chairmen and such like, all with little top-up allowances, and, of course, with well-paid officials to serve them. A standing joke about the present regime is that all but two Fianna Fail deputies have "jobs" of some kind.

If the committees do little good, they can do little harm. Not so the 15 Cabinet ministers and 20 junior ministers. By constantly increasing the number of junior ministers, previous Taoisigh, especially Bertie, blurred chains of command and responsibility and thereby contributed to the shambles that passes for an administration.

At the same time, they built up a large "payroll vote" and diminished the chances that they themselves could be toppled by a backbench revolt.

But when discontent affects the top echelons of a ruling party as well as the foot soldiers, the scene changes, and in the still watches of the night, Brian Cowen must sometimes reflect that no Fianna Fail leader since Sean Lemass has resigned entirely of his own volition.

Ministers as well as backbenchers want to avoid a devastating general election. But if the economy keeps on deteriorating at its present pace, the prospects of a political recovery will not improve in 2009, or 2010, or 2011.

Loyalty, traditional or bought, will simply not bear the strain. Then the alternative becomes tempting.

However, the arguments against a coup are enormous. In the first place, where is the candidate to replace the present leader? Secondly, what legitimacy could he or she possibly have? Cowen came to office without a general election, without even a leadership contest. There is a limit to the number of palace revolutions a democratic country can tolerate.

There is a much wider question. What would Micheal Martin, or Dermot Ahern, or any other successor to Cowen actually DO? The most dismaying thing about our financial and economic crisis is not the job losses or the half-built houses or the budget deficit or even the banking imbroglio, terrifying though all these are. It is the overwhelming evidence that the Government simply does not know what it is doing.

And the Government's panicky and rudderless situation is related, much more closely than might appear on the surface, to the salaries and perks of backbenchers, the posturing of ministers who love nothing more than the sight of a red carpet -- and the arrogance of bankers.

This month we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the first Dail, that remarkable assertion of democracy and independence.

Three years later, we became an independent country. Our early governments were austere, fiscally conservative: too conservative, no doubt.

In recent times we grew rich. I think it was Pearl Bailey who said "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better". So it is.

But in growing rich, some of us lost the run of ourselves, and nobody more so than the Fianna Fail party, from the ministers in their limousines to the overpaid backbenchers to their friends in the late, unlamented Galway tent.

Only a few months ago, I had hopes that Cowen might put a stop to the nonsense. Those hopes have faded. Our real political choice now is neither a palace coup nor whatever acrobatics the Greens may choose to indulge in.

Either Cowen makes a miraculous, Gordon Brown-style recovery, or we must have a change of government and we must have it in 2009, no later.

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