Tuesday 16 July 2019

McGuinness is not some maverick minister with a penchant for public-service bashing, just one who can speak common sense

History will treat this politician kindly, but can we recognise the truth of what he is saying now, asks Brendan O'Connor

Minister of State for trade and Commerce John McGuinness does not wish to be a hero or a martyr. Neither does he seek attention. But he is a man who believes that he has a mandate and a duty to lead and to try and set an agenda for Government. He is a serious guy and a businessman and not a bullshitter. He is uncomfortable with the notion of being characterised as some kind of "maverick" or "outspoken" TD. As far as he is concerned, the things he says about the civil service are just things that need saying. They are common sense. They are the kind of thing any businessman would say if he looked at our civil service.

But we live in absurd times, times of political torpor and dullness. There is a sort of mad political correctness around saying obvious things about the government, the economy and the civil service. It says something about these times that common sense like McGuinness's can seem revolutionary. In ways, he is only stating the obvious. But then, even if something seems obvious, if no one is really acknowledging it, maybe that means it's not obvious.

That's the kind of weird times we live in -- the blindingly obvious is no longer staring us in the face.

McGuinness has been talking about the reform of the civil service and government departments for years now. But right now, in these straitened times, his message seems like one whose hour has come.

McGuinness made his most explicit call for reform of the civil service at the annual conference of the Beverage Council of Ireland last Friday.

It was exciting, as it always is, to see a politician, and a senior member of the Government, telling it like it is, but much of what McGuinness had to say was familiar and depressing.

He painted a picture of a civil service and government departments where "the lack of accountability, the lack of professionalism and the virtual impossibility of being sacked, is destructive. It steals individuality, encourages arrogance, forces compliance to a culture, drains enthusiasm".

The junior minister recalled, too, his time on the Public Accounts Committee, where he watched "a procession of representatives of boards and bodies peering into a series of financial black holes, completely unable to explain the mystery of it all, but content that no one would lose his job over it".

"Featherless, but still plump, state hens, puzzled by what had happened when they tangled with swift suave commercial foxes."

He spoke of people who have never feared for their jobs or fought with their bank managers, worried about their business or confronted competition, how they simply do not understand.

Speaking to McGuinness, it is clear he doesn't seem to be relishing his role as some kind of Cromwell of the public sector, but he seems like a man with a conscience and a sense of duty.

He is also a man with a respect for the market and competition.

There seems to be a kind of semi embarrassment about anyone espousing free-market ideals these days. Calling someone right-wing was always considered an insult in this country, although we all enjoyed hugely the benefits of right-wing economics.

You could be generous and think that this is why McGuinness is the only one who seems to be demanding that those in the civil service should be subject to the same forces as the rest of us. The reality is probably that it could be considered career suicide for a politician to alienate a swathe of his voters and all his colleagues in whatever department he works. McGuinness admits it's risky, but says it's not as risky as people might think.

He believes there are many sound people in the civil service who would like things to be different. He believes that many of the good people in the civil service are frustrated by recruitment and promotional mechanisms.

"It's almost demeaning for them," he says of these good people.

In terms of what needs to be done, McGuinness is quite clear. For starters, he says, we need to immediately and urgently deal with the overstaffing right across the civil service and government departments.

Would he identify specific areas?

"I could be lazy and say the HSE and walk away. And I say that with the greatest respect for Mary Harney, because I think she's there trying to do a good job and I believe she inherited a situation. But, in fact, I believe it's right across the civil service and government departments," he says.

In fact, not only are there many people in the government sector who don't have a function, there are many who don't even know what their function is, he says.

In terms of a business strategy, he recognises that the vast programme of redundancies he believes is necessary presents a major difficulty.

The downsizing of the government sector to deal with the realities of the current turnover of Ireland PLC is the obvious strategic solution to the problem, but there is a big but.

"You have to look at the greatest cost of all within any of the government cost centres, and that is labour. But if you try and adopt that strategy, you can't do it."

This is because no government, thus far, has had the balls to take on the unions and so overstaffing levels

have built up over the years. McGuinness believes that the figure of 8,000, allegedly floated by an anonymous group of civil servants as the number of jobs that could be cut from the government sector, is probably an accurate figure.

To show that he has the courage of his convictions, McGuinness says that he has raised the issue of overstaffing in his own department as part of discussions about planned cutbacks there.

More urgent still, he believes, is to change the nature of employment contracts in the civil service, to move away from the idea of a guaranteed permanent and pensionable job for life that you cannot be removed from.

He suggests, among other things, that people should be employed on a contract basis. All he is really saying is that civil servants should be subject to the same rules as you and me.

After all, as McGuinness points out, they wanted equivalence with the private sector and with that right comes responsibilities, too.

"I don't know what's extraordinary about this," he says. "We paid benchmarking. They got that, and more, and yet their responsibilities and work ethic hasn't changed at all. If you want to be like the private sector, that's the challenge. Welcome aboard, and I don't see anything wrong with that."

Furthermore, he points out, "what you're spending every day of the week is money that is hard earned by Irish people. You have a duty to them that we get value for money, that we spend it in an honest and diligent way".

It is important to point out, too, that McGuinness is not just bashing the civil service. It is clear from talking to him that he believes in the civil service and believes that there are very many bright and hard-working people in there.

But he also believes that the systems and the environment in which they operate do them no favours. While he admits that the civil service can tend to be cautious in its outlook and in the advice it offers the Government, he concedes that "maybe too many risk-takers like me would be bad for the country".

McGuinness could be regarded by some people as a very dangerous man. He is a guy with a big idea; a man with a vision.

That in itself could be reason enough for the vested interests of the status quo to crucify him.

He is also that rare gem: a politician who is not trying to please all of the people, all of the time.

He is taking the considerable risk of scaring many important people in order to tell his truth, a truth he sees as blindingly obvious. He is, in a sense, a true public servant.

We can only hope he isn't silenced, that he starts the debate he wants to start.

"I wasn't elected to wear a straight-jacket," he says. "I was elected to make a contribution."

The thing about men with big ideas is that, while they can get into all kinds of trouble in the short term, history tends to judge them very kindly. Let's hope we and John McGuinness's colleagues have the wisdom to recognise and appreciate his contribution now, and not just later.

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