Sunday 18 August 2019

Obituary: Sean Cromien

Distinguished public servant who was also a keen naturalist, writes Liam Collins

Pithy way: Sean Cromien
Pithy way: Sean Cromien

At a time when senior civil servants saw their role in a different light from that of their political masters, Sean Cromien, the Secretary General of the Department of Finance, defined his job as being, "the last of the small spenders".

And during the eight years he held the job, until his retirement in 1994, there wasn't a lot to spend. Throughout much of his tenure, his job involved financial trauma as Ireland's fiscal deficits ballooned after citizens were told "we are living way beyond our means" by the first taoiseach he served directly under, Charles Haughey.

During his year in charge of the public finances Cromien was a member of the three-man 'Financial Review Board', with Bob Curran and economist Colm McCarthy, which became known as 'An Bord Snip' as the then finance minister Ray MacSharry attempted to implement cutbacks as a way of controlling public spending.

He was also a central figure in Bertie Ahern's 'War Cabinet' during the 1992-93 'currency crisis' which led to the devaluation of the Irish Pound by 10pc on January 30, 1993, after it came under sustained attack from financial speculators after Britain's withdrawal from the European Monetary System (EMS).

Ahern went into his office that day believing it was the only way out after sustained and mounting pressure and Cromien replied "Yes" when the then taoiseach ventured, "I think we'll have to devalue."

In retirement, Mr Cromien was able to indulge his passion for nature as a keen amateur naturalist, cataloguing species of Irish plants and animals like his hero Robert Lloyd Praeger.

He also become president of Dublin Zoo, where he helped to lead a redevelopment programme, making the zoo what it is today.

But he never quite left the civil service milieu and also conducted government-sponsored reports into the Department of Justice and later the over-spend on the construction of the Jeanie Johnston famine ship.

For a man who always looked severe, with large spectacles and dressed in a long black crombie coat, he had a pithy way with words.

Appearing as a witness in the DIRT Tribunal in his capacity as a former secretary general of the Department of Finance and director of the Central Bank, he declared that it was "always easier to persuade governments to deal with tax avoidance than tax evasion" something that was well known by the political classes whose first instinct when presented with unpopular measures was to think of their seats.

Cromien was a junior civil servant in the Department of Finance when the 36-year-old TK Whitaker was appointed secretary of the Department in 1956. In a diary entry reproduced by Whitaker's biographer, Anne Chambers, he conveyed the excitement of the moment among the 'grey' men who then ran Ireland's finances: "Mr Whitaker has been appointed. Great excitement and a very popular choice... he has been promoted out of his place in seniority, purely on merit, at every turn. It's like the beginning of a new reign. We all wonder what it will mean. We feel it will bring change."

He was one of those who would rise to prominence in the years that followed, becoming second secretary and then first secretary for 17 years before assuming the top job.

Born in Dublin in 1929, Sean Cromien was educated at the Christian Brothers School in North Brunswick Street in the inner city and graduated with a first-class economics degree from UCD.

After a short stint in the Office of Public Works, he transferred to the Department of Finance in 1952, where he would spend the rest of his working life, rising at a steady pace, rather than in the spectacular fashion of his mentor TK Whitaker. At various times he served as a director of the Central Bank, a member of the National Economic and Social Council, the advisory committee of the National Treasury Management Agency and the boards of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and development.

Following his retirement, he and Edmond Molloy conducted an inquiry into the Department of Justice in 1986, which found organisational, management and systems deficiencies and concluded - ironically in the light of much later events - that "nothing short of a comprehensive transformation" was required for the Department.

Mr Cromien was also involved in a hard-hitting report on the €15.5m spend on the Jeanie Johnston famine ship, now a popular tourist attraction in Dublin docks although it is no longer sea worthy.

In retirement he also took over as a full-time director of the National Library for six months when the incumbent retired on health grounds. He was also, for a time, on the board of the National Museum of Ireland.

Mr Cromien, who lived in Killester, Dublin, liked to indulge his passion for nature by bird watching and he was a regular swimmer at the Half Moon Club on Dublin's South Bull Wall. A committed and life-long Catholic, he also served on the finance committee of the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Sean Patrick Cromien died last Monday at the age of 88 and his funeral took place at Glasnevin Cemetery last Friday.

Sunday Independent

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