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Being on the inside track gives us that warm glow


Angela Kerins, chief executive of Rehab Group

Angela Kerins, chief executive of Rehab Group

Angela Kerins, chief executive of Rehab Group

It is beginning to dawn on the Irish people that we do not live in a democracy. We live in an oligarchy, a society in which supreme power is vested in the hands of a small, exclusive class. It seems at times that the only people our system is designed to protect are the already powerful. Even more often, it seems that the benefits for those in the charmed circle are limitless, and not to be subjected to any kind of scrutiny.

As a result, we find most of our national institutions crumbling around our ears. Our society is becoming more chaotic by the day, with most of our public services unregulated and inadequate because those who have the real control do not have to answer for their use of financial power.

When the oligarchs prate of "accountability" and "openness" it has become clear that they mean accountability by others, but not on their own part. When Angela Kerins, CEO of Rehab, went on radio to appeal for and defend transparency and accountability in the "charity industry", she implied that her own organisation would emerge from any inquiry as a white knight. Yet she refused to reveal her own salary... in the same interview. Its illogicality rocked the country. But Ms Kerins, one of the most powerful people in the land, did not seem to expect that it would rock us.

The oligarchs seem to feel that they can defy even simple logic.

And there's the rub: we don't seem to want a fair society, we want to be among those who benefit from an unfair one.

There has been much talk recently of speeding up the appointment of a "charities regulator". Does that mean that the offensive, greedy practices which have continued for years in sections of the "charity industry" will disappear?

Our economy crashed under the surveillance of a financial services regulator. When the financial oligarchs were untrammelled in their dealings, we had a State-appointed financial regulatory authority. But the financial oligarchs resented any kind of restraint, and there were frequent calls for less regulation of business. And all the while our economy was being reduced to ruin.

State-structured regulators are only as effective as those who control them permit them to be. We have proved time and again that our oligarchs know how to ensure that the regulatory authorities are firmly under their control. There has been a pattern that regulation in this country, rather than being the master of practice, has been the servant of the practitioners, in effect merely another instrument of spin and PR for the oligarchs.

We call it everything from "common sense" to "exceptional circumstances" to "discretion", as in the application of motoring penalty points. Rules are for little people. And the political system feeds into it by encouraging citizens to behave like moronic infants.

A new street light is required in the area where we live? We contact a TD, not the roads department of the local authority. Instead of feeling ashamed of ourselves, it gives us a warm glow to think that we're on the inside track, with a direct line to power. Next step, the topped-up salary and helicopter rides to the races at the taxpayers' expense.

There is an answer, of course. It's called the no-exception rule. This would mean that any organisation in receipt of government funding is not permitted to pay salaries in excess of public service guidelines ... from whatever source the excess comes. And the figures are published bi-annually, in full, without requirement for a freedom-of-information request. No exceptions, for commercial or any other sensitivities. It is our right: our money is at stake.

We have seen the spectacle of St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin claiming that its chief executive's salary will no longer be topped-up out of government funding or charitable donations, but by "other sources of income". And it has just emerged that Cork University Hospital paid a debt collection agency €58,000 in 2011 to write threatening letters to emergency department patients who had not paid their €100 fee for care. Except that many of them had already paid the fee.

No source of income at a publicly funded hospital should be used for anything other than patient care.

Equally, no public service organisation (again, any organisation in receipt of taxpayers' money) should be permitted to employ PR consultants. It should merely do its job, and not require to "spin" its achievements.

During the week, a Department of Justice audit found that Rehab spent €700,000 of taxpayers' money on communications, marketing and hospitality. And according to the audit report, there had been very specific limitations as to the use of that money: it was not to be used for any kind of administration, much less spin ... sorry, marketing. Rehab says the audit demonstrates "a serious and material misunderstanding" of the lottery compensation fund.

Equally, the real scandal where the Central Remedial Clinic was concerned was not that it was using money raised from the generosity of the public to top up Paul Kiely's obscenely generous salary as CEO, but that the salary was being topped up from any source.

There is an ethical warp, to say the least, as well as a distasteful lack of propriety, in a person employed by a charity organisation expecting to be paid a salary far in excess of international senior executive norms in private industry. A 'no-exception' rule and regular publication would have prevented it all.

Irish Independent