News Comment

Friday 22 August 2014

Quangos not only cost taxpayers but they serve no purpose

Eamon Delaney

Published 18/06/2014 | 02:30

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Economist Colm McCarthy recommended a serious quango chop as a first step in cutting down on Government over-spending
Economist Colm McCarthy recommended a serious quango chop as a first step in cutting down on Government over-spending

Before the last election we were promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos' and a cull on the plethora of State-funded bodies, institutes and authorities that grew up in the boom years, many of them competing and overlapping and all of them invariably calling for more Government money, such is the nature of these bodies.

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It seemed that there wasn't any aspect of Irish life that didn't have its own expert organisation, paid for the Irish taxpayer.

Economist Colm McCarthy recommended a serious quango chop as a first step in cutting down on Government over-spending. But the new Government lost its bottle and, with backsliding and special pleading, the vast majority of these bodies survived, and are still writing their ‘important reports.’

The IHRC, which has been amalgamated with the Equality Authority, is a particular example of quangoism in that it addresses areas already covered by other bodies, but examines this work under the definition of ‘human rights'. Hence, its latest report includes recommendations on the independence of GSOC which just about everyone else has made. It is the same with Travellers’ rights, the Magdalene Laundries’ legacy and prison conditions, which again are well covered by various visiting committees and the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

Even on the issue of asylum seekers, where the IHRC describes how applicants are subjected to lengthy and frustrating delays, has been well covered by immigrant groups and others.

Basically, the idea seems to be to list these issues and then stress the ‘human rights' aspect. Thus, the Taoiseach's apology to the Magdalene victims, and their compensation, ‘did not correspond to human rights remedies' and the Gardai ‘must address foreseeable risks of human rights violations.'

But what do these phrases even mean, you might ask. In fact, they are wonderfully self-fulfilling and self-justifying. For, if there is a ‘human rights' aspect to it, the IHRC will be on the scene. Time was when a ‘breach of human rights' was someone being killed or tortured, or locked up unfairly. This was in the days when Amnesty International had a Prisoner of Conscience campaign that rock bands would highlight. But with the growth of the ‘human rights' industry, the concept seems to have stretched into all areas of human life, offering new work for experts and quangos. And more issues to spend our tax payers’ money on.

And it is an international phenomenon, often leading to farcical consequences. For example, the IHRC report will be made to the UN Human Rights Committee, in advance of a hearing next month in Geneva about how Ireland is meeting its standards as set out in the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Member States get to freely quiz each other.

Thus, two years ago, Ireland was accused by Iran of ‘xenophobia' and of having ‘a harsh treatment of muslims'. This, from a country that hangs gays and persecutes its minorities. (In fact, Ireland was last week reported to be among the most Islamic-friendly of countries). At the same meeting, Afghanistan, of all places, questioned the Irish Justice Minister about alleged ‘violence in Irish prisons'. But then why wouldn't these countries try it on, given that the reports drawn up by Irish groups often use such disproportionate language. For example, Mark Kelly of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, echoed the charge of an ‘excessive level of violence in Irish prisons.'

To a listening foreign delegate, such a phrase must have conjured up the bloodstained walls of Syrian jails rather than some admittedly overcrowded European prison where Sky Sports-watching prisoners still, regretfully, have to slop out. And in losing a sense of proportion or relativism in this debate, the ‘human rights' experts not only diminish the definition of serious human rights abuses they also let the real offenders off the hook.

Countries that do abuse human rights can always distract from their crimes by pulling out these reports, and saying ‘well, what about your Travellers or what about your police force, eh?’ Meanwhile, the rest of us will wonder why we have to fund these reports and why that other report, by Colm McCarthy, wasn't adhered to, and this superfluous quango wasn't just abolished.

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