Saturday 27 December 2014

Brussels to Birmingham: top must-see destinations for the Siptu junketeer

The squandered HSE fund is just another example of boom-time waste, writes Willie Kealy

Published 27/06/2010 | 05:00

New York, Los Angeles, Savannah, Georgia; then Australia, London, Sheffield, Birmingham, Southampton and Brussels. Some of these sound like attractive destinations. Others, not so much. But they are all must-see places if you want to learn how to be a cleaner or a caterer in a hospital. Or maybe if you want to train people to be cleaners or caterers in a hospital. Or, more likely, if you are one of the guys who oversee the people who train the cleaners and caterers in a hospital.

Actually, nobody seems to know just exactly who went on these junkets -- some of them, like New York, were repeat trips, and on one occasion some of these destinations were joined up to make a round-the-world tour.

The HSE paid for it. That means you and I paid for it. They seemed to think they were giving the money to Siptu "for the training, education and development of support staff . . . to maintain support for Siptu's human resource/personnel schemes and the development of management/union partnerships of best practice in health enterprise".

Given that mouthful, it is not surprising that nobody has yet figured out what exactly the money was used for or who got to use it. The gardai are looking into it. So is the HSE. So is Siptu.

The money -- all €2.3m of it over four years -- came from the equally confusingly titled "overall parallel benchmarking budget" and was doled out originally from the old Midland Health Board, and latterly from the HSE.

It was, like all the best questionable schemes, originally an ad hoc arrangement. This involved somebody in some branch of the public health service doling out €250,000 a year to somebody in Siptu. Problem is, Siptu says they never received any of this money. But then, it was an ad hoc arrangement.

This is just another example of the looseness with money, and especially with public money, that became so prevalent during the boom.

As we look back now we can remember the junkets. We hardly noticed them at the time -- politicians of all ranks going around the world to spread the message of Ireland, or to look at new ways of doing things and bring back fresh ideas. Ministers and their minions did it. County councillors became the most cosmopolitan apparatchiks you would find anywhere. St Patrick's Day was the highlight, but there wasn't a trade fair from Hanoi to Hong Kong and points east and west that was safe from our inquiring eye.

We became a nation of escapists. Bono and Beckett and Behan had proved to the rest of the world how wonderful we were. Now it was our turn to show them. And everywhere we went we travelled in style. First class was de rigueur. Dublin Airport became dangerously overcrowded, so we started to build a second terminal.

The working year was punctuated not just by holidays but by paid holidays, also known as junkets. As often as not you could bring the wife or partner. The more adventurous might bring the mistress. The best food and drink was always available and much of the time was spent in an alcoholic haze. But we kept our wits about us. How do you think we became so knowledgeable about villas in Tuscany, apartments in Bulgaria and beach houses in Florida?

We fled Ireland, we fled reality. We fled the weather. Never mind that for centuries the weather in Ireland has been unchanged. Suddenly, we couldn't stand it any more. Four, five, six times a year we couldn't stand it.

But now reality is back. The second terminal lies empty. The technology of the mop and bucket will have to be figured out without international expertise to help. The good times are gone, and we are grounded once again.

Auden was right: "Now Ireland has her weather and her madness still."

Sunday Independent

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