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Open competition was never an option

THERE'S nothing like a little nepotism to take the shine off the Taoiseach's image. Not that he did it personally. He just abdicated responsibility when it came to his Ministers of State and party members appointing family and friends to positions within their departments. He is quoted last week as saying "personal appointments are personal appointments and I can't and don't make final decisions in that regard". Funny that, I thought he was the boss.

You can't make fish of one and flesh of another. Either you can or you can't have family members and friends appointed. Nepotism seems to be rife in political parties, and, despite all the noise made by Mr Kenny and his party prior to the election, it's a case of 'carry on as you were'.

Should family members be appointed as political assistants and personal secretaries? It's very easy to condemn the practice when it relates to someone else -- but when your own neck is on the line it's a very different matter, as Mr Kenny and his parliamentary colleagues have found out.

Politics is a rough game, it's unrelenting, unforgiving and time consuming. It's not the average nine to five, Monday to Friday commitment that most secretarial or advisory positions require. It is a 24-hour, seven days a week vocation. Ask any public representative elected by the voter if they ever have the luxury of being able to put, "Sorry, we're closed," on their front door. I think not. Even young Leo Varadkar has found out that he's on duty, as far as the public are concerned, regardless of whether he's on a night out or not. We expect our politicians to provide us with 24-hour care, to be at our beck and call, no matter what else is going on in their life. And I'm not talking about the Cabinet (who you would expect to be on 24-hour call). I'm talking about our local TDs and Ministers of State.

Politicians don't get elected out of the blue. In most cases, many years of voluntary work in the community and political party have gone before. Party workers, family and friends have committed their time and energy for free to promote the candidate. Homes have been thrown open for meetings. Evenings have been given over to research information and canvass constituents. Valuable knowledge and understanding of constituency matters and policy issues has been accrued by volunteers, family and friends. Knowledge that would take a new recruit months and possibly years to come to grips with. Is it fair to victimise an individual just because they are family? Is it fair to preclude an individual from a position just because they happen to be a friend of yours? Was it wrong for Jack Kennedy to appoint his brother Bobby as Attorney General? Should John Bruton have excluded Richard Bruton from Cabinet? The issue of employing family and friends is not as clear cut as Fine Gael and Labour portrayed on the run-in to the last election.

There's not many without a vocation for or personal commitment to the job, or person in the job, who would put up with the long, often unpredictable, sometimes arduous working conditions and hours required to carry out their duties. Working for a politician puts a whole new meaning on the concept of flexitime. It's about being flexible enough to work whatever hours are required. Coupled with that is the need to have the patience of Job, an in-depth understanding of political matters and an ability to second guess the preferences and responses of the politician you work for. Not an easy job description to fill.

The problem, when it comes to government members employing family and friends, is not that the practice is, always and inevitably, rotten or corrupt. The problem is that, as Mr Kenny has discovered, it's easy to pay lip service to a worthy notion when you're sitting on the Opposition benches. No problem when you're on the outside shouting in, but not so easy when you're in the hot seat yourself.

Everyone appreciates the need for politically astute individuals to be employed in the positions concerned. If Mr Kenny was serious about changing the system then he, as party leader, would have set up a panel of individuals suitable for the posts that would inevitably arise when his party came into government. It's not like government was sprung on him. He and his party had well over a year to prepare for the inevitable.

OK, so he and his Government can claim ignorance on the extent of the financial crises facing the country. Some of his ministers can claim inexperience in dealing with their brief. In these first 100 days, the external atmosphere is pretty tolerant. People make allowances for newness. Even their media gaffes can be forgiven. But the lack of foresight is less easy to gloss over.

Let's face it. They knew they were going to need staff. The overwhelming likelihood was that some of them would promote the family members already helping them out at local level. It was ever thus -- and, as the longest-serving member of Dail Eireann, nobody knew that better than the Taoiseach. So if Mr Kenny was serious about enforcing the ban on anything that could be perceived as nepotism or cronyism then he would have put the necessary procedures in place to ensure adequate and suitable staffing from open competition. Did he? No, he assuredly didn't.

In the absence of such facilities one can only assume that Mr Kenny was engaged in that age-old practice of electioneering when he promised change. He would do well to remember that the people voted for change -- and for that they will hold him to account when he delivers 'more of the same', as happened last week.

As Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time."

Sunday Independent