Friday 26 December 2014

Gerard O'Regan: Self-righteous sense of entitlement shows we're not in this together at all

Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30

Minister for Health James Reilly

'Every time a friend succeeds," the late American writer Gore Vidal once bemoaned, "a little something in me dies."

If Vidal was still alive, and heard how we do things in Ireland, it's possible he might display an even more jaundiced view of the world.

He might even update his sense of resentment to something like this: "Every time I hear of yet another juicy top-up in the Irish health service, something really big in me dies."

It's human nature for people to compare and contrast their own financial situation with that of others – particularly when it comes to the rate for a particular job.

The drip, drip, drip of the salary top-up saga in recent days has provided plenty of fodder for resentment, jealousy and rage among those in less freewheeling workplaces.

The fact that a country, which so recently had to go with the begging bowl to try and keep the ship of state afloat, has such wanton lack of control in our crisis-hit health services, has shocked many observers.

It is yet another bout of miasma which has left Health Minister James Reilly floundering. It has also seriously dented the "we are all in this together" mantra which has been central to this Government's pleas for wage restraint.

The overall impression is that, in some cases, there was full knowledge of what was going on by the powers that be. However, a culture of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, and a determination to hear no evil and see no evil, meant that matters eventually got out of control.

It was inevitable this ostrich strategy would encourage relativity pay claims all over the place. Once the secret was uncovered, others in the inner circle wanted their own slice of the action. "I'm having some of what he's having" became the order of the day.

The net result is that there are some salaries which now seem to be more reflective of Celtic Tiger madness and largesse, rather than what should be paid in post-troika Ireland.

Amid the verbiage, claim and counter-claim over the past two weeks, it is clear there was an alarming lack of overall management, accountability, and clarity, regarding these so-called salary top-ups, at the most senior levels of the health service.

Despite the high-handedness in the response of some of the individuals and organisations involved, there is one central point which cannot be ignored. If taxpayers' money – or cash collected from members of the public for charitable causes – helps fund a particular institution, there has to be complete transparency about all its spending.

But instead, various ad hoc arrangements, which now seemingly displease the Health Minister, were put in place. In some cases, extraordinary remuneration packages were agreed.

Managing a charitable institution – commendable and all as the work may be – simply does not justify a salary of well over €200,000.

The job is by nature administrative and functional. It is not at the cutting edge of performance-related management in an ultra-competitive environment. Salary levels should reflect this reality.

In general, there has been much confused logic and reasoning surrounding this debacle. For example, all sorts of comparisons have been made with other sectors, such as the amounts paid over agreed norms to various government advisers.

But the fact is these salaries were sanctioned by the proper authorities – however unpopular this may have been with sections of the public.

It should also be accepted there is scope for agreed exceptions to the much-vaunted Haddington Road deal, which has ensnared the overwhelming majority of public servants, in a vice-like grip of wage restraint.

But these exceptions must be clearly above board and signed off by the relevant authorities.

For example, there are instances where the country simply has to pay a competitive rate for top-class mobile expertise, such as in the financial and banking sector. It is in all our interests, we attract the best and the brightest, to carry out certain jobs which will benefit the overall economy.

We should have the maturity to accept that, on occasions, there has to be agreed exceptions to the Haddington Road guidelines. There is no point in Ireland Inc cutting off its nose to spite its face, while indulging mediocrity in certain high-performing risk-related jobs, purely on a point of principle.

This is a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy – which will cost taxpayers dearly in the long run.

But what is especially objectionable about the health service top-ups is the chaotic nature of it all, with the Department and the HSE, at sixes and sevens about the whole affair. Those tied directly or indirectly to the public service cannot behave like a swashbuckling privately funded independent organisation, where the taxpayer has no involvement.

And some of those involved in this whole sorry mess, who hold senior positions in various health service providers and charitable institutions, have done themselves a particular disservice, with the coy and limited explanations on offer.

There has been too much self-righteous entitlement on display. And too much sleeveenism.

Irish Independent

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