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Sunday 19 May 2019

Civil servant cabal 'trying to block bank probe'


PAC chairman John McGuinness takes a public sector chief to task

A 'cabal' of at least five top level civil servants are opposed to real reform of the public sector and blocking a full banking inquiry, the chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) John McGuinness has told the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt.

The charges are made in a fraught exchange of correspondence, which reveals that a serious breakdown in relations has occurred between the civil service department in charge of public sector reform and the committee that is charged with monitoring its effectiveness.

The deeply embarrassing war of words began on July 11 this year, when Mr Watt wrote to Mr McGuinness after Mr McGuinness had, two days earlier, told the Sunday Independent that a powerful group of civil servants wants to "nobble" any inquiry into how the decision to guarantee all bank deposits in September 2009 was reached.

In response Mr Watt told Mr McGuinness that it was "of real concern to me that unsubstantiated allegations of a serious nature against the civil service can appear in the press without any evidence to support them".

Watt, in particular, noted he wished to raise "a number of concerns we have arising from recent press coverage in the Sunday Independent" whilst he also warned McGuinness, "I am concerned by your own recent references to the attitude of the Civil Service to the Public Accounts Committee which I believe to be unjustified''.

"The core values of the Irish civil service, namely honesty, integrity and impartiality respect for the law respect for persons, diligence, responsiveness and accountability – are I believe still strongly held and enduring,'' he said.

"I also believe that staff take pride in being committed to such a set of values and that the vast majority of them take their obligations extremely seriously."

When mistakes are made, he said, "it is only right and proper that they should be investigated. . . in a fully open and transparent manner to maintain public confidence and ensure probity".

However, he also warned that "reputation and trust are very fragile attributes easily damaged and once damaged are extremely hard to repair''.

Brendan Howlin's secretary general claimed that the department and civil service were "fully supportive" of the PAC though "undoubtedly tensions may arise in the probing of particular issues or decisions" but that this "should not detract from a system that works well".

In a somewhat unique attempt at a dressing down from a senior civil servant to the chairperson of the constitutionally protected PAC, Mr Watt also claimed that "the suggestion too that civil servants have been involved in frustrating a banking inquiry is particularly wide of the mark".

In a tart response, Mr McGuinness thanked Mr Watt for his "Corinthian" list of core values but warned that "if professionalism, transparency, personal responsibility, value for money, speed, vision, state-of-the-art management, systems controls and human resources practices and a commitment to excellence are not quickly added I'm afraid Ireland will be left behind".

Mr McGuinness then claimed that: "Ireland will be left behind because the public service generally is ill-equipped to meet the challenges facing this country nationally and internationally''. He warned that "our public servants have to discard the old model where they were in the back seat and out of view" and be "run and managed in accordance with private sector best practice".

That, however, said Mr McGuinness, "is not happening at the moment and despite the rhetoric I cannot see it happening any time soon which is a cause for concern".

Mr McGuinness told Mr Watt, who is essentially the mandarin charged with public sector reform, that, like too many other European countries, Ireland still relies "heavily on generalists and consensus, which in my opinion has contributed a great deal to the state Europe is in today".

Mr McGuinness told Mr Watt that when it came to the taxpayer paying out for public sector inefficiencies "there is a price to pay for beating up a compliant Peter to pay Paul" and that this consists of having "strangers telling us to do what we should have done many years ago with the public service".

He added that "now shamefully the people of Ireland have to do hard miles, because our political and public servant leaders over many years took soft options with trade union approval. . . and taxpaying Peter understands what the troika are talking about.

"I understand the changes. I am calling for may be a giant step for a culture devoted to the status quo, caution and prudence," he said, but added that "the virtues and Corinthian ethos which you describe will be of little use" unless Ireland reforms itself "ahead of as many countries as possible".

The FF TD told Mr Watt he had "no doubt at all that there are at least five senior civil servants who do not believe change is necessary or that Dail Committees are getting above themselves. I have met some. And I am quite sure there are at least five who do not want a bank inquiry".

The TD tartly added "so pardon me Robert, if your concerns about trivial headlines in a newspaper don't get me jumping, especially when I consider how often no one is found responsible because it was systemic failure, 'the machine done it sir'. That is accountability?"

Politicians, he said, should also shoulder some blame for the mess the public sector is in because "they did not challenge or assert their authority. They allowed a reactionary culture to take hold and they must now loosen its grip".

The cost, he said, "to the country of this failure to lead is enormous and it is regrettable that this trend continues".

Sunday Independent

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