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Brendan Keenan: There will be no success unless we improve the way we do our business

A woman of my acquaintance had a part as an extra in Neil Jordan's film, 'The Butcher Boy'. Some scenes were filmed in St Ita's mental hospital in Portrane. It took her months to get over the nightmarish conditions she found there.

That was 13 years ago. The woman in question is not my colleague Emer O'Kelly, who has campaigned about conditions in this dreadful place since she discovered the same nightmares 20 years ago. She wrote about it again last Sunday after the latest official report yet again described conditions as "appalling".

I mention my personal knowledge of it merely to make the point that this scandal is no secret, has received regular publicity, and even more regular promises from decades of health ministers that something will be done about it.

In other words, while it may be extreme, it is all too typical of the way things are done, or more often not done, in Ireland.

There are many other things besides mental health services that, for decades, have been promised for immediate fixing. They include driving test queues, lack of provision for juvenile offenders and inadequate schools.

That shortlist covers four major departments. The combined salaries and pensions of the ministers, secretaries-general and managers who presided over these perennial failures would make a pretty penny. Yet not one of them have ever been called to account for the failures.

No bonuses have ever been withheld. No TD has lost his or her seat on these grounds of incompetence. The idea that any would ever have to resign, or be disciplined, for their inadequacies never arises.

Economic crisis

Why am I going on about all this? It does seem far removed from the economic crisis. I have come more and more to the view, however, that it has a very great deal indeed to do with the crisis.

More, I am less and less convinced that there will be a full economic recovery if we do not radically improve the way we do things.

By the same token, this is not another case of the infamous "campaign" against the public service of which we hear much. The problems are wider than the public service.

But one knows the season from the fig tree. If the country is not functioning properly, it will show up first and foremost in poor governance and public services.

Even so, it is certainly curious to see public sector leaders complaining that the public service is being blamed, and that this is unfair. Of course it is being blamed. Who else is to blame for the woeful state of so much of it? Not the patients, the prisoners, the learner drivers and the schoolchildren.

My fear, though, is that our ailments are deeper than an inadequate public service. After all, the proximate cause of the crisis lies in the private sector -- with the banks. And the salient point once again is not the folly and the failures, but the absence of explanations.

This week may see another burst of public fury at the latest revelations about the apparently futile investigations into affairs at Anglo-Irish Bank.

A demoralised population may well assume that this is all just a whitewash, intended to cover things up and avoid explanations, never mind retribution, until we all move on and forget about it.

This palpable loss of trust among citizens in the way they are governed is one of the reasons for being pessimistic about the country's strategic future (as distinct from its current problems).

There is, though, another possible explanation -- that we already know all there is to know about Anglo. A tale of monumental greed and stupidity, for sure, but where actual wrongdoing consisted of shareholder deception and ill-conceived rescue attempts -- some of them approved by the regulatory authorities.

I'm sorry to have to tell you, but these may not be criminal offences. Even if some are, they would hardly carry a prison sentence. No-one is going to jail, but someone needs to sing.

Whatever about Sean FitzPatrick, we need to know what men like Brian Goggin at Bank of Ireland and Eugene Sheehy at AIB thought they were doing.

What discussions took place within the banks about the phenomenal expansion in lending? Did they ignore good advice or were there plausible arguments that, this time, it really was different?

Were they doing what anyone in their positions would have done; were they merely foolish; or did they understand the risks they were running all along?

I suspect that this is what Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan has in mind with his inquiry idea, having said specifically that it would not be about blaming individuals. Something more fundamental was at fault -- partly abroad, but clearly at home as well.

The duty of explanation fell on the chairmen of the big two banks -- Richard Burrows and Dermot Gleeson. It is still not too late for them to attempt to do so, but there is no sign that they will.

The fact that two such eminent leaders of our business and professional life feel no need to do so shows how deep rooted is this culture of "confidentiality" and lack of accountability. This is not China. A successful small open economy requires an open society. The danger for Ireland has always been that a patina of modern activities, mainly foreign but increasingly native, would be laid on top of a society which itself had not modernised sufficiently to nurture such enterprise.

The paradox is that the most rapid modernisation of Irish society took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when the economy had just been opened. It seems to me that it has slackened ever since, and regressed in the 2000s.

Despite outward appearances, a case could be made that the Ireland of 2009 is more like that of 1959 than 1969.

If this is the case, new economic policies, even from new ministers, will not be enough.

Something close to a revolution in our attitudes towards secrecy, accountability and the protection of vested interests is required if the rot beneath is not to fatally corrode the already tarnished outside patina.

Irish Independent