News Analysis

Wednesday 24 September 2014

See no evil, speak no evil Taoiseach is smothering dissent with autocratic style

Published 20/02/2014 | 02:30

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Kenny has dispatched warnings to anyone who challenges the system
Kenny has dispatched warnings to anyone who challenges the system

'Don't bite the hand that feeds you' is a sage adage for personal career advancement. It's the prevailing philosophy at the head of our current cute Government, but it can be inimical to the public interests of transparency and establishing the truth.

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The Taoiseach, on three recent occasions, has sent out this message. Instantaneous public warnings were dispatched to diminish anyone who challenges the system. The knee-jerk reactions were all conveying the same signals to dismiss critics who weren't prepared to toe the line.

When the media and Oireachtas members claimed former NAMA officials were improperly utilising sensitive internal commercial data against a named developer, he immediately cited NAMA legislation to caution that it was a criminal offence not to report any information to the gardai, preferring to blame the messenger, rather than wrongdoers. When Garda whistleblowers sought to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to highlight maladministration of the penalty points system, Kenny's Government sought to obstruct their direct evidence. Last week, he chose to reprimand GSOC for failing to report bugging to the Justice Minister, rather than investigate the surveillance source.

His leadership increasingly reveals an intolerant pattern of seeking to smother anyone who dares to confront officialdom. Anyone who knew Enda Kenny in a previous incarnation can barely recognise his present autocratic style with a congenial past personality. He never previously had an authoritarian or arrogant demeanour – rather an easy-going, avuncular, flexible affability. In the corridors of power, Kenny observers point to a change of personality.

Even his most loyal cabinet colleagues reveal a subtle distance emerging between him and them.

Instead, he relies to a large extent on a group of civil servants to direct him.

The Taoiseach, like his predecessors, also relies heavily for advice on the Secretary General of the Department and Secretary to the Government, in this case Martin Fraser. At Cabinet meetings he sits closest to the Taoiseach, finalises agendas, takes minutes and follows up on decisions.

Mr Fraser previously served under Dermot McCarthy and took over from him in August, 2011. He's a career civil servant with almost 30 years' service in departments. There is no one better to provide immediate advice to the Taoiseach and, like most other career civil servants, he is fiercely loyal to our system of government.

Under the Kenny regime, the 'Better Regulation Unit' in the Department of the Taoiseach, which sought to provide optimal accountable independent regulation of government, was dismantled; being disbursed to other departments – losing its central focus and authority. Academic papers by UCD Professors Brown and Scott chronicle and highlight in detail how strategic oversight of regulatory governance has 'withered' under this administration.

Over recent months, we observe serious disquiet and repeated scandals concerning self-regulation. The charity sector reveals stories of self aggrandisement by top executives in excessive remuneration/pension packages.

Failure to establish a Charity Regulator, despite legal provision since 2009, is a significant cause of the CRC scandal.

The legal profession sought to oversee their sector rather than an entirely independent statutory body. They continue to thwart and successfully resist new competitive multidisciplinary practice models. At the heart of the GSOC controversy is a failure to reform the 2005 Act to give it more regulatory powers over the Garda Commissioner and assert its absolute independence. Hasty carpeting of Simon O'Brien by Kenny and Shatter was a dismal humiliating episode in undermining GSOC's authority.

A key unresolved question is: who regulates the regulators? Politicians have happily established independent bodies to oversee thorny issues inherently involving conflicts of interests. Commission for Energy Regulation, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, ComReg, National Transport Authority and Pensions Board are amongst numerous public bodies that carry out quasi-judicial functions.

External nomination procedures, such as representation of social partners and professional organisations, seek to attain assurance of independence and impartiality. This doesn't make them immune from possible errors, abuses, wrong judgments or malpractice.

Tribunals have proved to be too slow and costly in ascertaining responsibility. The PAC formula, allied with Comptroller & Auditor General (CA& G) investigative powers and resources to analyse all state expenditure works well.

This model should be replicated by establishing a standing Public Regulatory Committee of similar credibility. It could be resourced with senior counsel expertise and specialist skilled investigative officers.

Such a parliamentary body could be called in to establish the truth in matters other than public expenditure compliance. PAC puts the fear of God into senior civil servants; we need an analogous parallel PRC to eradicate covert cultures of secrecy.

Because we've just learned ministers don't bite the hand that feeds.

Irish Independent

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