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Brendan Keenan: Finance mandarins need Wright stuff to curb politicians

'IWISH somebody would have told me," Bertie Ahern said in that now rather notorious interview outside Leinster House.

I leave it to grammarians to decide exactly what tense of the verb "tell" that is. It is a common form of Irish speech and none the worse for that. But, with Mr Ahern, you are always left wondering if an apparent infelicity is being used to conceal a deeper truth.

That probably means I am too much in thrall to the old master of the dark arts. Still, the form of words used by Mr Ahern goes to the core of the Wright report on the Department of Finance which is due to be published this week.

To my ears, it has the subtle meaning that somebody chose not to tell. The more conventional: "I wish somebody could have told me," implies that nobody knew anything was wrong and therefore had nothing to tell.

The Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf made this point in a typically thorough dissection of the Irish situation last week. He pointed out that, right up to the 2007 global difficulties, there was virtually no difference between the yields on Irish and German government debt.

If the markets' money is giving you good news -- that there's no problem -- and the analysts, or at least some of them, are saying the opposite; whom do you suppose a Taoiseach will want to believe? But what should a Department of Finance official believe?

The report, produced under the chairmanship of Canadian official Rob Wright, is expected to endorse the widespread view that the department lacked the expertise to know whom to believe. The determined view of the Irish civil service, that a clever generalist beats a specialist every time, is coming under question as never before.

There is a curious relic of Empire here. The Indian civil service is infamous for having changed nothing since independence in 1948. But the Irish civil service is not far behind in conservatism. Yet others who inherited the British code -- Australia, Canada and New Zealand -- are regularly held up as examples of innovative thinking and practice.

It is time we joined their ranks. If there is going to be more professional expertise in the Irish civil service, perhaps it can find novel ways of advising government ministers.

It seems clear that one would have needed a serious professional reputation to have succeeded in persuading Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen that they should slam on the brakes; inflict losses on property investors and homebuyers; and tell the public sector unions where to shove it. Because that, make no mistake, is what it would have taken to avert the disaster which has befallen us.

Mr Wright's report is expected to say that the bumper budgets and social partnership-driven increases in the size and earnings of the public sector played a large role in that disaster -- which is one reason the findings did not appear before the election.

There is good evidence that senior people in the Department of Finance were unhappy about the trajectory of public spending. How could they not be? They may have lacked the expertise to see that the real threat was from the ballooning bank loans, but they knew where spending rising at twice the economy's potential growth rate must lead.

The report suggests they did not make this case as strongly as they should have. To some observers, there is a suggestion that the departmental Achilles was sulking in his tent.

The role of the Department of the Taoiseach had grown in tandem with social partnership. Spending departments had been given more discretion, in an attempt to make their spending decisions more rational. And Charlie McCreevy had the admirable trait of not always following official advice to the level of a religious dogma.

Perhaps Finance officials were demoralised as a result. Perhaps they were playing a long, subtle game of revenge, without realising the consequences. Whatever the reasons, we are back to the age-old conundrum: just how much power should the Finance Department have?

I freely admit to having been a critic of the iron grip of Finance in the past -- not least because the grip too often was applied in the wrong way to the wrong place.

And I must also admit that the spending departments have shown little sign of the extra responsibility that must come with extra freedom. Unfortunately, even when they did, as with pension reform, Finance was still strong enough to apply the death grip.

We do need more applied expertise across the Irish public service. And we do have to make a second attempt at finding ways to curb politicians behaving irresponsibly. However, returning to the old Dublin-Castle control system, even if staffed by PhDs, is not the answer.

Sunday Indo Business