Wednesday 17 July 2019

Comment: We're no one's fools any more after harsh lessons of Crash

Society can't function if the concerns from the Crash period are sustained
Society can't function if the concerns from the Crash period are sustained
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Trust, once broken, takes time to restore and until then a climate of suspicion prevails. Nothing is taken at face value and normal assurances of the other's 'bona fides' are insufficient to satisfy one's doubts.

The slightest hint of wrong-doing explodes into the kind of drama is now being played out on the national stage most notably in the controversy surrounding the sale of Siteserv by IRBC.

Trust among business people, civil servants, politicians and the general public was shattered comprehensively leading up to the economic crash and implosion of the banks.

It has not yet been restored, as evidenced by the fraught, tetchy exchanges between the parties involved in the Siteserv case.

We've had similar raised voices between the gardai and GSOC and between the HSE and some hospitals following a breakdown of trust in each case.

A common thread running through all these cases of loss and restoration of trust is the nature of assurances given.

The Financial Regulator assured us that the "fundamentals" of the banks were sound, while the banks' boards accepted the word of highly qualified staff members that everything was fine and dandy.

When these assurances turned out to be worthless, with terrible consequences for citizens, the natural reaction was "once bitten, twice shy, from now on only 100pc transparency will suffice and to be doubly sure, we want the facts verified by an independent, external body".

The situation is compounded when, having put in place people and processes designed to restore public trust, something else happens that gives rise to suspicion.

Secrecy justified on the grounds of "cabinet confidentiality", "commercial sensitivity" or "to protect people's rights to due process" and the sight of heavily redacted reports trigger accusations of a cover up.

Add to the mix the reappearance of some of the same lawyers, auditors, bankers and developers who are associated with the original calamity and people despair of ever being able to rely on the assurances we are given by those entrusted to protect our interests, particularly politicians

Society can't function if we start thinking that we can't trust the assurances of the mechanic who fixes our car, the financial regulator who tells us the banks are sound, the senior garda who investigates the latest controversy, or the auditor who signed the accounts.

So we have dilemma: either put our trust in others and run the risk of being duped, again, or freeze all action until we have questioned everything to the nth degree.

It may help to resolve this dilemma if we can understand what went wrong with assurance-giving and assurance-accepting that preceded the crash.

Robust scrutiny of the facts and strict adherence to rules were abandoned in favour of reputation and relationships, the glue which held the golden circle together.

As Niamh Hourigan brilliantly exposes in her recent book, 'Rule-Breakers', in Ireland relationships tend to trump rules.

This same culture pervaded dealings between the Financial Regulator and the banks, epitomised in the immortal response of Patrick Neary to the last ditch wheeze by Anglo Irish Bank to get out of the hole they were in: "Fair play to you Willie (McAteer)".

Several enquiries into the Department of Finance found that officials were too deferential, too timid in raising concerns about the banks and the rapidly deteriorating public finances.

There may be a silver lining revealed in the row over the sale of Siteserv. Department of Finance officials, it seems, are no longer shrinking from asking hard questions and are persisting until they are satisfied with the answers, regardless of whom it upsets.

It would represent significant progress if this signalled a change of culture among senior public servants. A recent report on the Department of Justice told of excessive deference towards An Garda Siochana and it is clear that for decades officials in the Department of the Environment were insufficiently robust in their questioning of scandalous goings on in the planning system and construction.

While we depend on public servants to act as the Fifth Estate, as Maurice Hayes called it, to protect the public interest, a balance has to be struck between weak-kneed oversight and endless demands for more and more proof of integrity.

I can think of four recent examples where NGO and private sector innovators were driven nuts by officials who lacked the competence, confidence or the authority to make a decision and just kept adding more loops to the process.

In each case I can safely say these innovations were no brainers that would save the State tens of millions.

Irish-style, cosy, unquestioning relationships bred corruption and had disastrous consequences for everyone.

The challenge in this post-trauma period of reconstruction is to build a more mature basis of trust, where competent public servants fearlessly insist on fact-based assurances and adherence to the rules, on the one hand, and where people don't indignantly take offence at this questioning.

Irish Independent

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