Thursday 29 September 2016

Ben the burglar can sleep easy after minister's political stunt

Shane Ross

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

NO BOAT-ROCKERS: Frances Fitzgerald has defended the Policing Authority appointments. Photo: Frank McGrath
NO BOAT-ROCKERS: Frances Fitzgerald has defended the Policing Authority appointments. Photo: Frank McGrath

Ben the burglar had a great Christmas. He and Mrs Ben had escaped from the floods, spending Christmas week in their usual suite in the Ritz-Carlton in Tenerife.

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Yes, 2015 had been Ben's best year ever. The burglary industry had boomed. His bank had written, thanking him for his business during the year, increasing his credit card limit to €50,000.

His local Fine Gael TD had personally called to the house and explained some of the benefits of the Budget - he and Mrs Ben would be getting increased social welfare as he was on the dole. His local Labour TD had bettered that by promising annual hikes in the "labour".

Mrs Ben was thinking of opening a second-hand jewellery shop as the house was getting clogged up with stolen trinkets. No cloud hovered over their horizon.

Ben understood that Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald had a job to do. He had laughed loudly just two months ago when she had launched Operation Thor in front of scores of cameras. Nevertheless he had bought himself a brand-new, high-speed car - €80,000 cash - just in case.

Ben woke up on New Year's morning with a thud. Listening from the comfort of the Canaries to the RTE radio news, he thought he heard that Frances Fitz had announced "a new era in policing in Ireland".

Ben shuddered momentarily. He gave Mrs Ben a dig in the ribs and told her to listen. She yawned and muttered that it was all spin. Frances was on one of her public relations stunts. She told him that politicians often fill the news vacuum during the Christmas break to pull a media stroke.

"Go back to sleep," she whispered. "It is vintage Frances. For God's sake all she is doing is revealing the names of a few stooges to put on the new Policing Authority. Relax."

New Year's Day was vintage Frances. The minister announced eight members of the Police Authority. Surprisingly, the role of honour was not the usual list of Fine Gael/ Labour cronies on a state board. Not a blueshirt in sight. The bearded brethren, too, were left out in the cold.

This was Fine Gael Nua. They had all been "selected for appointment following selection processes run by the Public Appointments Service", according to the press release. Bravo for the new independence. All the nominees seemed to have been politician-proofed. There are no 'Friends of Frances' leaping off the page of the statement. An open selection process has produced what she calls "a high-calibre team".

Ben read the list out aloud to Mrs Ben. He began to chill out. In the chair was Josephine Feehily, former chairman of the Revenue Commissioners. Ben had never paid any tax in his life so he had little fear of Josephine. "If she could never nab me for tax when she was in the Revenue gig, she is hardly likely to catch me going at 150 miles an hour down the M50," he bragged.

Ben sat upright in the bed. "Who are all these people?" he asked. "Are there any working-class people who have done well, entrepreneurs like us, on the new authority?"

"None. Mostly well-heeled public servants with great jobs or pensions."

"Any tough, law-and-order people?"

"Maybe one."

"Victims of crime, then?"

"Jaysus, things have not got that bad."

"Anybody who would vote Fianna Fail or Independent?"

"No, all solid establishment, middle-class types."

"Is that code for Fine Gael/Labour? We're safe so?" asked Ben, as he headed for the Jacuzzi.

"Not certain," muttered his shrewd missus. "I don't like this independent process run by the Public Appointments Service. Takes the choice out of the hands of politicians. In the past we could always rely on them to put their friends on state bodies."

Mrs Ben should not have worried. The new Public Appointments Service may have fooled the media, but happily, even over the Christmas period, one watchdog was at work. We should all be grateful to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and its boss, Mark Kelly.

After the Department of Justice had slipped the names of the Police Authority unnoticed into the public ether on December 30, the ICCL issued a bombshell. It welcomed the establishment of a Police Authority. It even gave the individuals a clean bill of health, but it "deplored" the political appointment process.

We had all been led to believe that the appointment of the new authority had heralded in a brave new dawn.

Mark's crew had spotted something. Mark claimed the PAS was being "used as a fig leaf for their [the appointees] direct appointment by the Government on the advice of the Minister for Justice".

According to Mark, the PAS has been used as a mere "letterbox". The Government had bypassed the process. Buried in the Garda Act - passed a few weeks ago - was a nasty little section allowing the Government to short-circuit all that independent nonsense in the regular PAS board selection process. Fine Gael and Labour can still interfere.

Worse still, the chosen ones need not be subject to normal PAS processes when they come up for reappointment in three or four years' time. The process can be dumped again in favour of direct ministerial patronage. If the authority members want to be re-appointed it will be in each individual's interests to keep on the right side of the Minister for Justice. Ahem.

The offending section in the bill, giving the Government the powers to short-circuit the PAS process, was inserted at a late stage in the legislative journey. It was not included in the original General Scheme, but mysteriously appeared in the final legislation.

Fine Gael and Labour do this sort of thing much better than Fianna Fail. FF crudely parachutes its favourites on to all boards without apology or fig leaves.

To be fair to the authority members, they are not card- carrying members of either party. But they are no boat- rockers. The head of the Irish Banking Federation, Noel Brett, joins the former boss of the Revenue Commissioners, Josephine Feehily, and the big chief of Chartered Accountants Ireland, Patrick Costello. A former director-general of RTE, Bob Collins, has been selected, while others have plenty of experience in the deeply flawed HSE ethos. Consultant Maureen Lynott was lucky enough to earn €1.1m during a five-year spell in HSE boss Brendan Drumm's kitchen cabinet. The press release does not mention her good fortune, nor that she was a member of the VHI and of the discredited benchmarking body.

Another board member, Valerie Judge, has HSE experience. Others with public service backgrounds include Moling Ryan, recently retired as boss of the Legal Aid Board. To be fair, one appointee, Judith Gillespie, has valuable past experience at the PSNI.

So far all are insiders. One outsider has been included. The most interesting appointment is Dr Vicky Conway - a real reformer - who lectures in DCU. I guess she will be a young, challenging voice in a deeply conservative wilderness.

It does able people a disservice when they are products of a political stunt.

The list could have included real reformers. Why did the bill exclude members of the gardai? Was it to ensure there was no place for whistleblowers like Sergeant Maurice McCabe, who knows a few unpalatable truths about the gardai and politicians?

Or why not veteran reformer Mairin de Burca, who served for years on Prison Visiting Committees, travelling there by public transport?

Or journalist Paul Williams who knows more about fighting crime than any of the usual suspects sitting on the authority?

God forbid, garda reform might have broken out.

Ben and his missus can sleep easy. Nothing has changed. They will be back at the Ritz-Carlton in 2016.

Sunday Independent

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