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Monday 9 December 2019

Mediocrity strikes again as we fail to learn from past

Few dared to challenge the suitability of the two
nominees for the highly paid top job in Europe

Environment Minister Phil Hogan
Environment Minister Phil Hogan

Eddie Hobbs

Historian Max Hastings observed: "The pre-war British army militated against recruitment and promotion of clever, imaginative, ruthless commanders capable of handling large forces - or even of ensuring that they were equipped with weapons to match those of the enemy. All too many senior officers were indeed men who had chosen military careers because they lacked sufficient talent and energy to succeed in civilian life."

Hastings was influenced by World War Two Field Marshal Alan Brooke's diaries: "Half our Corps and Divisional Commanders are totally unfit for their appointments and yet if I were to sack them I could find no better! They lack character, imagination, drive and powers of leadership."

How much of the West withering assessment might apply to the performance of key parts of the Irish permanent establishment when the diaries of Ireland's economic war are eventually studied by historians?

We know for certain that the elite Department of Finance slept through Ireland's growing credit bubble - which reached to over one-fifth of our GDP and dangerously exposed revenues to the cyclicality of the property sector - yet nothing was done and internal, contrarian voices were restrained. Historians will ask, who was sanctioned, what lessons were learnt and, years later, what changed?

The Department of Finance's second last chief, Kevin Cardiff, was promoted to the Court of Auditors in 2012 to oversee the EU's budget, a role that pays more than €19,000 a month and is unaffected by salary cuts back at the ranch.

Cardiff had taken over from David Doyle, on whose watch the bank guarantee was written in 2008. Doyle retired at the youthful age of 60 in 2010, after just four years as General Secretary, when his €115,000 pension was topped up to the maximum by Brian Lenihan, boosting its open market value by nearly three-quarters of a million to €4.6m.

Last week, after open competition, a Department careerist and insider, Derek Moran, was promoted from his position as an Assistant Secretary General to the top job as General Secretary at the Department of Finance. In the pivotal 14 years that overarched Ireland's boom and bust, that makes seven chiefs rotating through the same post and its gilt-edged superannuation benefits, including John Moran who, arriving from the private sector in 2012, lasted just two years.

In November, the newly created role of Chief Economist at the Department of Finance went to another career civil servant, John Mc Carthy, who segued from his previous position as senior economist. Is there a pattern here that a zealous reform coalition might care to address in its quest to modernise public administration, or does the permanent establishment elite merely ape the behaviour of its political masters?

New Labour leader and Tanaiste Joan Burton's first pronouncement was that the man she replaced, failed Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, was 'eminently well-qualified' for the post of EU Commissioner - a package worth €300,000 a year.

What has the former Democratic Left politician accomplished to make him so qualified, in the eyes of Ireland's new second in command, for Europe but not for leading the Labour Party?

A career trade unionist and local TD, Gilmore had a three-year stint as a junior minister at the Marine during the rainbow coalition to 1997, and took over from his former Democratic Left colleague, Pat Rabbitte, in 2007, to lead Labour into government three years later, during which time the Irish banks and its economy had collapsed.

Gilmore steered past the prone corpse of Fianna Fail by mis-selling promises he couldn't keep, and that ultimately led to the destruction of Labour's vote in this year's mid-term elections.

The alternative proposed was former auctioneer, Fine Gael Minister for the Environment Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, in cabinet three years. He's now got the job, ahead of Gilmore, and, subject to the EU screening process, is to be quarantined in Europe until safely after the next election.

'Big Phil's' previous experience in government lasted three months as Minister for State at the Department of Finance, resigning after the leaking of budget details to a journalist.

The choice between Gilmore and Hogan was presented as a fault line in the restructuring of the Coalition, but in the suffocating theatre of personality that comprises much of political coverage, few seem to be questioning whether either man was fit for the job of EU Commissioner, or, more importantly, was fit to apply soft power in the pursuit of Ireland's national interests. But should we be surprised?

For six weeks we've been treated to the borefest that was the competition for Labour leader when it was never in doubt, just as it is certain that the change, mid-stream, will do nothing to alter the destiny of this Government no matter how many times the deck is reshuffled.

The Labour leadership borefest has been followed by the Garth Brooks borefest, sharply reminding us that, in the mission to reform public administration, nothing much has changed.

The system and processes will be blamed for the concert comedy caper, but not the lousy leadership responsible for it. When the focus moves to the next story - likely to be weeks of fulminating about the budget - there will be no consequences; we've simply become inured to failure and mediocrity. What can be done to fix a cultural disposition that treats personal consequences for failure in public administration, at best with helplessness and, at worst, with promotion?

Max Hastings observed that the contrast in the quality of leadership between the Royal Navy and the British Army for most of World War Two was founded in a culture-shifting event that reverberated from centuries before - the execution, in 1757, of Admiral Sir John Byng, for 'failing to do his utmost' to save Minorca from falling to the French.

Management methods may have become more compassionate in the meantime but the outcome of facing consequences for incompetence hasn't, as Voltaire satirically noted: "Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.")

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