Thursday 14 December 2017

Government by civil service can only last for so long, as the problems pile up

GOVERNMENT by senior civil servants. It's a prospect that you will hear more and more about as Irish people share the Western world's malaise of discontent with politicians, which is heightened by the continuing political deadlock at Leinster House.

Belgium went 589 days without a government in 2010/2011 and set a dubious world record for a democratic state. This happened because the opposing Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons were unable to agree on policy issues and form a coalition government after national elections.

But day-to-day affairs of the country were dealt with by a temporary government run by a former prime minister, while the two main political parties battled on.

This temporary government did not, however, make big decisions regarding budget spending, the national debt, foreign policy and defence.

We might have heard a deal more about it all - as at one stage there were major worries that a debt crisis could occur with fall-out for all of Europe. Happily, it did not happen, as it would have compounded our problems in an already grim period.

But Belgium has more fundamental problems that mean it should rarely be a role model for Ireland. Government gaps of lesser duration than those have added to a general hollowing out of the federal administration there.

In the 36 days since our General Election, with an acting government in a caretaker mode and much occupied with government-making and party politics, more of our fate is in the hands of some very capable and well-motivated civil servants.

Martin Fraser, general secretary of the Taoiseach's Department and John McCarthy in the Environment Department spring to mind as people of talent and integrity.

But it is dangerous and specious to assume senior appointed officials can take the place of those elected by the will of the people to make political decisions that order our affairs and spend our taxes. The reality is that many things, notably appointments, have been put on hold. For example the position of Garda Chief Superintendent for Kerry is now also being assumed by the Chief Superintendent who runs the Limerick division. No full appointment will be made until we get a government.

The world is not going to stop over such things. But the vacancies will pile up before too long. Officials preparing matters for necessary political decision will become more and more frustrated at the lack of necessary political follow-through.

We would also be wrong to assume that Ireland can flourish without an ongoing flow of Dáil decisions. Later this month, for example, our TDs are expected to debate the spring economic statement, which is the second most important economic event in the running of the nation, only topped by the Budget.

Without a government there can be no meaningful debate on the economic strategy. Neither can more pressing issues be broached, like a Health Department budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of euro, which is once again the product of inadequate costings and funding provision.

It's not only our health services that are bedevilled by serious problems. Housing is in crisis and we need a major conversation about industrial relations, around sharing the dividends of economic recovery, before we quickly slide back to being a nation crippled by strikes that scare off foreign investors.

Initiatives to address all these matters can only come from government. Caretakers and talented senior officials are not fit for these tasks.

Word from the series of rolling talks at Leinster House and Government Buildings is that sincere efforts are being made to agree broad policy principles which could give us government. But we clearly will exceed our 1992/93 record of 48 days.


Irish Independent

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