Tuesday 21 January 2020

Marc Coleman: One woman was man enough to shout stop

We need more civil servants in the mould of Marie Mackle, the Finance whistleblower

Maybe because I've worked in both institutions, I get defensive about ex-colleagues in the Department of Finance and the European Central Bank. Old loyalties die hard and when you see dedicated, hard-working people taking the rap for decades of failure to reform, you feel obliged to stick up for them. Kevin Cardiff is a case in point.

When he was criticised, I pointed out how a dysfunctional management system in the department, and not him, was responsible for the mistake for which he was blamed. The civil service can't reform itself, nor can civil servants defend themselves from media critics.

But when civil servants find themselves isolated within their own organisations, it is far worse. Particularly when all they have done is their public duty. When journalist John Healy was decrying the decline of rural Ireland he used the phrase: "No one shouted stop." Well, as evidenced by Daniel McConnell's and Tom Lyons's work in this paper last week, Department of Finance official, Marie Mackle, did shout stop. In a succession of observations to senior management and the minister in the boom, she issued the kind of warnings that needed to be heard. But no one was listening.

On my first day as a journalist, on July 4, 2005, I attended a press conference held by then Minister for Finance Brian Cowen and asked him if he was worried about the growing dependence of government on revenues related to the property market. He was, he retorted, "proud" of the fact that the government was so reliant on property taxes.

At the same time Marie Mackle was trying to warn the department. A year later, July 6, 2006, property tax revenues were growing at over 30 per cent a year. In an article entitled "He had a good run but now the Tiger is in trouble", I pointed to the huge risks this created: overdependence on volatile property tax revenues and the risk that -- even in a modest property market slowdown -- a severe fiscal adjustment would be needed. Mr Cowen's officials drafted an article responding to me saying the economy was being managed prudently and that there was no dependency on a surge in property revenue.

We now know the truth. That warnings from various quarters -- the OECD, IMF, ECB and David McWilliams about the banking sector and from myself and Marie Mackle about government finances -- were right. But the IMF, OECD and ECB had nothing to lose from warning us. And as for myself and David, we got rewarded with publicity. All Marie got, it seems, was the punishment of being ignored.

It was not always so in the civil service. Hopefully it is changing for the better. Robert Watt's appointment to Brendan Howlin's department and John Moran's job in Finance are a good sign. But two swallows don't make a spring.

When I joined the civil service in 1994, there was a healthier culture. Group-think was there, to be sure. But among older civil servants -- those who saw the disasters of the Eighties -- there was a greater willingness to face ministers down. Then came 14 years of Fianna Fail, social partnership and the culture of group-think and acquiescence.

As well as its neurotic hostility to thinking outside the box, Fianna Fail's tendency to farm out policy decisions to costly, unelected, unaccountable and useless quangos undermined and demoralised the civil service.

And for civil servants who "played the game" this created an array of sinecures in quangos and agencies to which one could, at taxpayers' expense, be promoted. And with what looked like decades of Fianna Fail rule into the future (until 2009 it seemed Fine Gael would never rule again) standing up to a Fianna Fail minister meant risking one's career. I left the

civil service for the ECB, whose culture was much more meritocratic.

On returning in 2004, I considered rejoining the public service, but the level of economic competence at the time was too low and I had no confidence I would make a difference. So I did an MBA and went to work somewhere I felt I could make a difference: the media.

Marie took a braver stance: she stayed and fought the good fight. She is a charming person and, at just over 5ft tall, would make you want to adopt her as a sister. She and those like her need a big brotherly arm around them now.

And the cause of what happened to her -- the tendency to ignore or sideline those who challenge consensus -- must be exorcised from every organ of government.

Countering the 'Yes Man'culture is particularly crucial now that we have a government with a 113-seat majority and a weak opposition.

Incidentally and on the subject of men, isn't it ironic that in a department full of them, Marie was the only person man enough to shout stop? She is uniquely public spirited. And uniquely brave. And worth far more than many above her who will retire before their 60th birthday with a six-figure lump sum and a six-figure pension (at our expense). Please God, she will not suffer for her bravery.

Finally, I note that the trade union Impact, which represents senior civil servants, is backing the fiscal treaty. "Pacta sunt servanda" has become "Impacta sunt servanda". If I were in government, I'd be getting worried.

Marc Coleman presents 'Coleman at Large' on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10pm on Newstalk 106-108fm

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