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Brian Brennan: Mindset of a ruling elite has to be banished forever from Irish life

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'Politicians who rashly placed their bets on the bank guarantee and the NAMA strategy will pay the price at the polls, but their unelected advisers, who had an unknown degree of influence, will not.'

'Politicians who rashly placed their bets on the bank guarantee and the NAMA strategy will pay the price at the polls, but their unelected advisers, who had an unknown degree of influence, will not.'

'Politicians who rashly placed their bets on the bank guarantee and the NAMA strategy will pay the price at the polls, but their unelected advisers, who had an unknown degree of influence, will not.'

IN some parallel universe, far, far away, the Fine Gael leader, Ivan Yates, is busily motivating his troops for the upcoming General Election, an election which could make him the best Taoiseach that Ireland never had.

In that distant, alternative place, the Health Minister -- who had said four years previously that the number of patients lying on hospital trolleys amounted to a national emergency -- swears never again to go away on holiday until all the emergencies and scandals in the health service have been dealt with.

Here, in this world, the trolley problem has grown so much worse that our emergency departments are now being described as war zones.

Even in the past year, almost on a daily basis, the Irish public have had glimpses of that alternative universe, the Ireland that might have been, if acquisitiveness, negligence and a lack of accountability had not conspired to sabotage it in a thousand different ways.

Among the many wake-up calls there was the mystery of the granting of permission by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority for a €200m project that did not comply with the development plan, and the subsequent disappearance of the relevant minutes of meetings.

People got very, very angry over the little matter of a three-month summer holiday for the Government in the middle of the biggest economic crisis in the history of the State.

There were revelations of massive waste of public funds by a national training authority which offered 10-week courses on 'How to compile a CV' as a supposed strategy for getting people back to work.

People learned about Revenue employees who accessed sensitive information out of "idle curiosity" and senior officials who circulated memos urging caution in case the public might "find out".

The perks of government ministers being collected or dropped off by government jets at locations convenient to their homes strengthened people's convictions that their rulers were living on a different planet. Episode by episode, the culture of cronyism and waste, white elephant projects, international junkets and outrageous salaries and expenses that went largely unnoticed during the boom years was laid bare.

An elitist mindset allowed the ruling class to tell itself: "It's because we're worth it." But they weren't worth it.

With each dramatic exposure, people briefly glimpsed a possible alternative Ireland in which politicians and public servants would not betray people's trust so readily. They saw an Ireland that might have been, and one which might still be created.

Ten-point plans for recovery and reform are much in vogue these days as the Government's strategy looks increasingly bare and open to challenge in the run-up to the election. There is no shortage of shopping lists, with abolition of the Seanad at the top of some of them.

The Labour Party says it will carry out an extensive review of government and the public service which will lead to "the most significant reforms since the foundation of the State".

Excellent. But while the elected government is about to depart, presumably before the end of March, the "permanent government" will remain in situ and largely untouched. The senior civil servants who advised and guided the Government as it took momentous decisions that will affect people's lives for decades to come will watch those ministers depart and prepare to deal with a whole new bunch.

There will be new faces on the government benches in the Dail, but where is the evidence that the shocks of the past couple of years have changed anything behind the scenes?

The Croke Park Agreement guarantees wages in the public sector until 2014 with no compulsory redundancies, in return for real savings through flexibility and the scrapping of old work practices.

We are constantly told that progress is being made, but there is no clear sign that the deal is being honoured on the public services side, much less any sign of real savings to the public purse.

On the contrary, top grades just recently refused to surrender their 'privilege days' and lower paid civil servants are loath to give up the time off they are allowed to cash "pay cheques", even though they are paid electronically these days.

The sub-prime lending plague and the collapse of Lehman Brothers played their part in our decline, of course, along with the reckless ambition of developers and bankers and the regulators who turned a blind eye.

The politicians who presided over it all and rashly placed their bets on the all-embracing bank guarantee and the increasingly shaky-looking NAMA strategy will pay the price at the polls, but their unelected advisers, who had an unknown degree of influence on policy, will not.

A new Government will have learned from the hubris of at least some of the outgoing politicians and is unlikely to fall into the same self indulgent habits. It may even introduce the far-reaching reforms that have been promised.

However, the fundamental weakness -- the thing that has to change above all else -- is the mindset of a ruling elite, both in and out of the public eye.

We cannot continue to provide a privileged minority with "entitlements" more appropriate to a much bigger and far wealthier country. Such countries are "where they are" because they recognise that greed is not good, after all, and that responsibility, accountability and true patriotism are what count.

Change the mindset and our little universe will be transformed.

Irish Independent