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James Downey: We have a right to be kept in loop -- it's called democracy


SPAIN has got itself sorted out nicely. The €100bn bailout of the country's banks will help to "bring stability to the euro and the eurozone".

No, I'm not making it up. These were Enda Kenny's words on Monday. At the time he uttered them, he must have felt the "sense of security and stability" of which he spoke. He should have waited a few hours.

By the end of the day, the financial markets had delivered an unfavourable verdict. By Thursday, Michael Noonan was back in full doom-and-gloom mode.

But we didn't have to wait until Thursday to hear what sounded remarkably like a direct contradiction of the Taoiseach's optimism.

On Monday at lunchtime, one of his colleagues, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, outlined the reason why the Spanish bailout was a disappointment for Ireland.

We had hoped, he said, that the Spanish liability "would not go on to the sovereign", in other words that the €100bn would count as bank debt and not national debt.

On Sunday, some had thought that might indeed be the case, but disillusionment came quickly.

Why should it matter? Mr Varadkar explained: the assumption of the debt by the Spanish government "is exactly what happened here and we were hoping that wouldn't happen in Spain."

So much for those who had hoped that Madrid would get a better deal than Dublin -- and set a precedent.

For most people, these are still abstruse questions, made all the more baffling by the mind-blowing figures involved. My concern is more simple.

Somebody must have briefed the Taoiseach. Who could have prompted him to make an assessment so much at variance with the facts?

Did his advisers counsel him to put the best possible gloss on the story so as not to frighten the children, otherwise known as the citizens? Or was it another example of the self-delusion so characteristic of the last government -- and of the soon-to-be coalition parties during the general election campaign last year?

In either case, it certainly was an example of the kind of, shall we say, carelessness of Irish governments and the Irish bureaucracy when it comes to keeping the citizens informed.

We got another later in the week. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, admitted in the Dail that he could not give the figure for the civil servants brought back to work after retirement.

You and I are entitled to know this figure. Emphatically, the minister is entitled to know it. And someone must know it. Civil servants make a practice of keeping records of everything.

I'll come back to this point, but first I want to note some of the ways in which the Irish people can keep themselves informed about matters of deep concern to them.

One of the oldest, easiest and probably best is to watch the markets. On Thursday, Spanish borrowing rates rose to 7pc, the rate generally regarded as unaffordable. Not only is this discouraging for Spain, it is discouraging for Irish hopes of returning to the markets any time soon.

Another is to look out for leaks of confidential documents from the German parliament. This week's leak -- the third in a row -- attracted the standard condemnation from the European Commission, but there was nothing unusual in the comments. We could have worked them out for ourselves.

How are we getting on with meeting the terms of our own bailout? On the whole, pretty well, according to the Commission. Still, there are a few little problems that trouble it. Some not so little also.

The commission complains about overspending in the Departments of Health and Education, and about the delay in introducing new legislation on insolvency. Nobody can question the need for this legislation. Our existing laws are punitive, and deliberately so.

They reflect the attitude common in Victorian times, when bankruptcy was regarded as disgraceful.

I wonder how many small businesses have gone to the wall in the past four years for want of an easily accessible way to get back on their feet, and how many more are in peril after surviving so far against the odds.

THE commission thinks we may need "further cuts to some pay grades" in the public service. Obviously it means cuts at the higher levels. It also raises the question whether we should cut pay instead of numbers.

This is already the subject of some tentative debate here. It's not as clear-cut as it may sound. The core question is neither pay nor numbers, but efficiency. Does the health service give us value for our money? Or the higher education system? Senator Sean Barrett had a few choice words to say about our universities on Wednesday. He's an insider.

You can't but sympathise with the Government as it struggles with a European crisis over which it has little or no influence, aiming at ever-moving goalposts.

But there are some things over which the Government, and the bureaucracy, have real control. They can still turn calamity into opportunity.

And that brings me back to my point about bureaucrats and records.

Unusually, we got some good news this week. The Dail Public Accounts Committee finalised a 200-page document which will form the basis for its inquiry into the origins of the economic crash.

Will we hear at long last the full story, or something approaching the full story, of the night of the bank guarantee, September 29-30, 2008?

There were top civil servants in Government Buildings that night. Did they make notes? It wouldn't be like them to do otherwise.

Did they subsequently brief their relevant colleagues on the proceedings? That would surely be standard practice.

You and I would like to see those notes and hear about those discussions.

We are entitled to know about them. The PAC cannot turn back the clock, but it can vindicate our right to information, without which, in the heel of the hunt, we can have no accountable government and no real democracy.

Irish Independent