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Eddie Molloy: Why our party politicians can't help themselves

Minister for Health James Reilly cited several extra criteria to justify his decision to override the ranking of primary care centres by his junior minister, Roisin Shortall, who had used a transparent process to produce her list.

Apparently unsure that his explanation would convince the public, he trumped all arguments by asserting, "as minister, I have the final authority to make these decisions".

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar acknowledged that the insertion of two primary care centres for Dr Reilly's constituency could seem like stroke politics but added that, though he trusted his cabinet colleague, he would welcome seeing more of the detail behind the decision. So would I, and the rest of the population who had hoped for something better from this Government and who are deeply disappointed at so many signs of 'politics as usual'.

There are many other examples since the formation of the current Government that have a strong whiff of stroke politics and its twin, cronyism. The fact that a new government, which came into power with a clear mandate and promises to sweep away these practices, and in jig time adopted the same habits as their predecessors, invites careful scrutiny. Rather than attribute these failings entirely to crass insincerity or the moral failings of politicians, perhaps the ease with which the new Government slipped into 'politics as usual' has another explanation.

In an important new book, Irish Governance in Crisis, edited by Dr Niamh Hardiman, the authors put forward the hypothesis that the root cause of this malaise lies mainly in the fundamental structures of the Irish political system. They illuminate how the political system, as designed, prompts even conviction politicians to adopt a set of priorities that almost inevitably lead to cronyism, and pork-barrel politics.

Priority number one is 'my own re-election'. We see this preoccupation most clearly in the continuing practice of ministers showing favouritism towards their own constituency.

Having first made sure to look after their own constituency, second in order of priority is 'my party'. Party loyalty reached shocking levels in Fianna Fail, such as when his ministers continued to support Bertie Ahern as he imploded before the tribunal, telling fairy tales while under oath. Today, for example, the Labour Party's uncompromising defence of the Croke Park Agreement is not unrelated to the traditional bonds between the party and the public service unions. Fine Gael is seen as defending the interests of the business community and farmers. Sinn Fein is unlikely ever to support cuts to social welfare. All parties fear offending the 'grey vote'.

Coming a distant third in the order of priorities is 'policy', that is, doing the right thing for the short and long term benefit of all citizens, having taken account of all interests and not just the interests of 'my own constituents' or 'supporters of my party'. Whatever about an ordinary TD prioritising his or her constituency, a minister is responsible for coherent and fair national policy.

The central conclusion of Irish Governance in Crisis is that this rank ordering of political priorities is the root cause of the catastrophic failure of vital institutions and the consequent economic and social crisis.

Having diagnosed the underlying causes of several failures in governance by pointing up the fatal flaws in

many otherwise worthwhile reforms, such as the establishment of the Financial Regulator and the Garda Ombudsman Commission or the articulation of codes of ethics, five radical recommendations emerge which, unless they are implemented, we as a nation will be fated to repeat the calamitous mistakes of the past.

The five institutional reforms required to break the grip of "amoral localism", as the late Peter Mair called it, and instinctive subordination of good national policy to party interests, are:

1. Reform of the legislature, such that the Dail has the capacity and power to hold the Executive (ie, the Government) to account. Only Britain and Greece have a parliament which is so disempowered that it can do little more than rubber stamp ministerial decisions. In Ireland, the party whip system ensures that, no matter how strongly backbenchers disagree with a minister, they will troop in to support the Government, as happened recently when many Labour and Fine Gael TDs voted confidence in the Minister for Health, while severely criticising him publicly.

2. Practices of recruitment to government: Again, Ireland is at the extreme among OECD countries in drawing ministers exclusively from the pool of elected TDs. As a result, we end up with governments comprising a proportion of ministers who have little expertise in their particular sector, such as finance, and, equally detrimental, who cannot give their full, undivided attention to the job because of the need to keep a close eye on their constituency. So long as they retain their local TD seat after they have been appointed minister, the temptation to use ministerial office to favour their constituency will be hard to resist.

3. Delegated governance: There are numerous examples of regulatory and oversight bodies that purport to operate independently, at arm's length from government, but whose "delegated powers are not strong enough to discharge the oversight tasks which they have been set" or to resist political or vested interest interference in their powers to act independently of government. The Financial Regulator, the dog that did not bark, was not the only case of such institutional failure.

4. Public sector reform: Most of the public sector reforms under way today are no more than long overdue modernisation. According to Hardiman, "the impartiality and political neutrality of the public service play a key role in building and maintaining widespread public trust". Public servants, she says, should not see their role "as simply passively discharging the policies of the government of the day". This means that the core value of the public service must be unswerving commitment to the public good, which is not the same as unswerving commitment to the incumbent government. The late John Murray of Trinity College warned the public service against being "captured and corrupted" by the political system and urged public servants to "speak truth to power".

Among the 14 programmes set out by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, there doesn't seem to be an initiative that comprehensively addresses this decisive element of reform, namely the public service value system and culture, which is essential in order to pre-empt 'capture and corruption' again. Practice elsewhere would suggest that such a programme should emanate from the Taoiseach's office.

Hardiman adds a fifth essential reform, tackling crony capitalism, which needs no explanation here, and then concludes on a deeply depressing, but realistic, note: "Although many of these features of the Irish political system have long been recognised, reform requires an incumbent government to implement changes that directly limit its range of influence. Governments have tended to prefer a minimalist approach to self-binding in institutional design, rather than the robust and far-reaching changes proposed here." Expressed more colloquially, 'turkeys do not vote for Christmas'. It seems we are all, people and politicians, trapped in a profoundly dysfunctional system.

After all the promises of political reform, there is little sign of the political will to tackle effectively the structural roots of the cancer of amoral localism, political strokes and cronyism which bedevil this country. The political reforms signalled to date do not get at these roots.

Realistically, it is argued by some commentators, that even the best-meaning politicians are prisoners of the system and it is naive to expect them to survive if they do not play the game -- as Roisin Shortall's experience seems to bear out. If we accept the argument that 'well, this is politics and you just need to accept it or get out of the kitchen etc', then we really are a craven society.

Ms Shortall's story would appear to her supporters to be a tracer that vividly validates Hardiman's analysis and recommendations. So, is there any way we can get out of this paralysing predicament?

My own best bet, albeit a long shot, is on the emergence of a small number of conviction politicians who have the instincts of a statesman, meaning that they are interested more in the next generation than in the next election.

Sunday Independent