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Bruce Arnold: Kenny must get tough to put us on right road

Shortly before Enda Kenny became Taoiseach, and promised he would "hit the ground running", I expressed the hope he would be running in the right direction. Within weeks, his position and approach were being questioned and this has gone on, fuelled in part by noises off-stage, principally by Brian Lenihan, trying to claim that he got it right but was betrayed by the ECB and the EU. Jean Claude Trichet has now come back to deny this.

Trichet has not done so as a good democrat, releasing documentation and making himself available for public scrutiny, before the European Parliament or in Dublin. His role could then be challenged. But then, Trichet is not a democrat. Within the EU's totalitarian regime, he is close to being the senior dictator, amenable to no investigation or questioning and completely outside parliamentary control of any kind. That is what the EU treaties lay down. Most significantly, his fellow directors -- Patrick Honohan among them -- cannot control or change him. So much for the 'democracy' that now governs us.

I still believe Kenny might get things right. What he is working for centres on a confrontation with Trichet where Ireland will obtain long-term funding from the European Central Bank, releasing the country from the absurdity of week-to-week funding. The bailout was inevitable but the attached conditions were not. That was where Lenihan and Brian Cowen fell down and are trying to cover up. It is this that makes Trichet an oligarch of the worst kind, abusing our democratic integrity.

If and when Kenny and Michael Noonan achieve longer-term funding and a more manageable way out of the threat of default, they can move on to the question of burden-sharing. As an appendix to this, there emerges the debate on corporation tax.

Our own position must remain firm on better terms and we must stick to our guns on the 12.5pc corporation tax rate, which has become symbolic. Any rise will be interpreted as Ireland giving in to German and French pressure.

This is not a matter of Irish machismo -- though some see it that way, including dismal Department of Finance public servants who do not know how to stand up to the EU but breathe heavily at home whenever the subject comes up. This attitude permeates our so-called 'Permanent Government' within the Civil Service, unfortunately in most departments, and I will have more to say on that presently.

For the moment, let us be clear on Kenny and Noonan. They are not yet out of the woods. Are they sure about the way out? They are certainly being criticised in the press for behaving like Fianna Fail. But they have no option. They must proceed slowly. They are dealing with a monster (revealed as such in the rather pathetic explanations by Lenihan that he was 'betrayed'). What a weak way of telling us that he was bullied and defeated because he did not know how to deal with the challenges before him.

Noonan is being commendably calm. There is no doubt that he knows the score. There is also no doubt that Kenny doesn't panic. Together they have recognised the need to tackle this in stages.

Fianna Fail, by contrast, was not thinking straight at all. The party had fallen so completely into the hands of the riff-raff that controlled it, it had become unable to distinguish between the country's interests and its own.

Moreover, it was paralysed by fear, ignorance and panic. These are the three greatest forces in reducing normal human beings to imbeciles. And this is the real message of Lenihan's very limited confessions, to which I referred last week.

If he and Trichet could come clean and take the narrative back to EU and ECB intervention in 2008, the ghosts of the past might be laid to rest, not with much credit to either side. But the real value of such openness would be in transforming our case before the EU.

It could also realign other European states in support of our legitimate case for a workable debt-structure rather than the present crippling burden that will inevitably lead to default.

Kenny rode the tiger of this during the election and is still struggling to win his case. That objective, ironically, was helped by Lenihan. It could be helped more if Lenihan continues to pursue Trichet.

The more serious challenge to the Government comes from behind its back. I mean the public servants, who have a stranglehold on power. They need radical and immediate reform.

The most important reform is to change the method of senior appointments. Top senior civil servants should be appointed by a Top-Level Appointments Committee whose members are overwhelmingly from outside the civil service, including some people from outside Ireland.

The dire results from the old system were pointedly brought out by recent newspaper stories about and by Robert Pye, a Department of Finance official who repeatedly warned from 2004 of the economic dangers facing Ireland.

He pointed out the dangers -- which indeed transpired -- arising from the split between the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator. He was ignored and eventually silenced.

A senior civil servant of my acquaintance laments the fact that the Department of Finance no longer has smarter people in it than other departments, "but the arrogance remains". Aloof, and haughty without justification, the department suppresses debate and freedom within its staff. It does so with a strong streak of intolerance, another characteristic of our culture as is the fear that lies behind it. Pye challenged that.

This culture reflects the Christian Brothers' mentality of bigotry, ignorance, laziness and small-mindedness that has permeated Irish education and the civil service since independence. It reflects the Irish personality, one that is weak-minded and relies on peasant cunning and bullying to get its way.

The only role the present senior ranks of the civil service should play in civil service reform, which has to start at the top, is a confessional one. Senior grades will, of course, resist all efforts to introduce reform of the type needed, preferring the status quo.

Irish Independent