Sunday 20 October 2019

McGuinness: 'Coalition has failed to keep the people safe'

PAC chairman John McGuinness tells Political Editor John Drennan that the Government hasn't lived up to promises of change

Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness at Leinster House.
Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness at Leinster House.

John Drennan

The chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), John McGuinness, has delivered a scathing critique of the failure of this Government to fulfil "its first duty, which is to keep its people safe".

Instead, the TD said: ''We are marginalising our people and reducing them to numbers, to make it easy to treat them coldly and impersonally. This is not how Ireland should be."

The TD was being interviewed over his experiences within the PAC where he has become the most closely watched and serially leaked-against chairperson.

McGuinness, however, feels "any discussion about PAC must begin with a discussion about politics because good governance requires accountability, transparency and value for money". But, he said, ''we live in a republic where the power that we now have is a Dail pretending it has power, and even afraid of the little it has retained".

This he warned was a consequence of the decision over "many years, where a great deal of power has been ceded by politicians to State and semi-state bodies that are largely accountable only to themselves, in a hand-washing exercise that would embarrass Pontius Pilate."

The consequence of this, he said, "is that too many of the senior people in these bodies do not want to be challenged or held accountable by a political system that has emasculated itself and which they rightly hold in contempt".

As an example, he cited ''the Department of Health which has washed its hands of responsibility by handing it to the HSE, who will not respond to direct questions from TDs".

''The department passes them on to its inefficient, independent, misbegotten offspring, that takes its time about replying, and longer still before acting," he said.

And he warned that this process was escalating under a Coalition that had come in under a mandate for change.

McGuinness added that the public was disenchanted with a governing class that, after "posturing to get into power, fell into the warm, well-appointed padded ministerial cell provided to them, along with weak scripts and photo opportunities."

McGuinness also warned that the ''lack of desire our politicians have for real power means Ireland is now a bureaucratic, red-tape-filled, rule-book-bound nightmare for politicians and citizens".

He warned that the culture "of the rule book is driving flexibility, compassion and tolerance out of the way the State relates to the people".

Our people, he said, "are frightened and confused. Politicians have let them down and they are now even denied the personal involvement, support and understanding that good local government used to provide, for all its faults".

Politics, he said, was failing in a country where "many families now cower in their homes, afraid and shattered; our young are leaving in large numbers and our old and frail are being treated with disrespect and lack of care. Fear is everywhere, and leadership nowhere to be seen".

This, he claimed, ''is the cost of our Government grovelling for a pat on the head in Brussels, while at home they claim credit for the changes won by braver nations".

Responding to queries about his strained relationship with certain departments, such as Public Expenditure and its secretary general Robert Watt, McGuinness said that ''as chairman of PAC, I leave the constraints of party loyalties outside the door, as do my colleagues. All of us take our responsibility to the people, whose hard-earned tax goes to funding the State, very seriously. That we can do this better in the PAC than the Dail is an uncomfortable truth that deserves more scrutiny''.

McGuinness noted that having returned to the PAC in 2011, having been previously there from 2002 to 2007, he found "the same issues and problems are still being dealt with: poor management, inefficient technology and lack of transparency, accountability and, sometimes, respect".

There have been "improvements, some departments are very efficient and more and more senior public servants see the need for, and want, change" but he warned "no real effort is being made to challenge a collective mindset that is well entrenched and refuses to acknowledge the need for change".

In a comment echoing the concerns of the former Ombudsperson Maurice Hayes, McGuinness warns that "without strong leadership from senior public servants wanting change, of whom there are not yet enough, and politicians willing to give strong leadership, of whom there are never enough, change will come dropping slow".

The chairman in particular slammed the scenario where "the ability of the members of PAC to give teeth to a committee that was never meant to have them has caused alarm among those who wish it to be nothing more than a paper tiger, useful only for articulating and assuaging public concern about waste, without actually being able to do anything about it".

McGuinness reserved particular wrath for Brendan Howlin's Department of Public Expenditure which he believes is attempting to take over the constitutionally-protected role of the PAC.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he dismissed the attempt by its secretary general Robert Watt, to "attempt to chastise me for being so bold as to speak my mind about meddling mandarins".

McGuinness was even more scathing of attempts to water down a banking inquiry by "powerful people who would prefer if the inquiry never happened or was watered down to the point of being worthless."

The holders of this view, he said, ''do not want the experience and independence of PAC to be brought to bear on any inquiry into the banks. And if that cannot be stopped, delays will be the order of the day and every obstacle will be put before the committee to prevent it doing the work quickly and well."

The PAC chairman did not respond to concerns that these individuals might be attempting to stymie an inquiry out of concern for their own positions.

McGuinness did however note that it was obvious ''my use of toilet rolls, and, shortly, the publication of vouched and audited expenses from six years ago are being added to the kitchen sink in an attempt to discredit me, undermine my position as chairman of PAC and damage PAC's efforts to investigate''.

All of this he said only "encourages me to believe that PAC is making headway in its independent stance". McGuinness added that "the banking inquiry should be conducted by the committee best qualified to investigate".

And he warned those senior civil service mandarins who would reduce an inquiry into a single day that "it should cover all facets in the lead-up to the crash, including the warnings given by, and the treatment of, dissenting voices like those of Mr Pye and Ms Mackle in Finance".

McGuinness also noted that his anxiety to do the banking inquiry, which will ''no doubt be complicated and difficult'' had nothing to do with any desire for publicity.

It was instead informed by the need to "uphold the role of the Public Accounts Committee as being the proper committee to deal with it, and withstanding attempts to push us to one side".

We owe it, he said, "to all those politicians of all parties and those who broke new ground before us to protect their legacy and, if possible, hand it on enhanced".

McGuinness added that "the fact that Fianna Fail ministers or Taoisigh may be called to this or any other inquiry does not concern me and I do not feel compromised in any way. They know what my obligations are. And if they don't, I do".

The PAC chairman also called for a fundamental reform of the current scenario where "PAC itself, which has proven its worth over many years and many administrations, is not allowed to look into current spending or semi-state spending".

McGuinness believes that "if politics and politicians are to regain the trust of the people this nonsense has to stop. We have arrived at the point where we have control over nothing and are being blamed for everything".

But whist he acknowledges that Fianna Fail "lost touch with grassroot realities and is now paying the price, I am deeply disappointed with the current government".

On the opposition benches he had "for the sake of the country, wished them well. They had seen the mistakes we made, even if they were complicit in some of them, but they had promised much that was worthwhile".

But, "two years later they have broken nearly every promise that they made, not been radical or creative, done further damage to politics".

The promised leadership, McGuinness said, "has not been nearly as much in evidence as the rhetoric employed to disguise its absence". Labour, McGuinness warned, has "forgotten its roots and Fine Gael has forgotten its responsibilities".

And in a final cutting observation, the man who divides opinion like no other politician as to whether he is a black swan or white knight notes, "they could have done a lot better. They have let themselves and the people of this country down. They have not kept our people safe".

Irish Independent

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