Monday 17 June 2019

Make 'You'll Never Walk Alone' a public service motto

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Vicky Phelan's call to action is clear. Do your duty or be held accountable.

Duty and accountability are the two sides of the coin of public service.

No institution learned that lesson better than the British Royal Navy.

Because the heroic history of the Royal Navy in battle began at the sharp end of a firing squad nearly three centuries ago.

On March 14, 1757, Admiral John Byng was shot on the deck of HMS Monarch in Portsmouth Harbour for failing to energetically press the fight at the Battle of Minorca.

Admiral Byng was named, shamed and shot for dereliction of duty. But in modern Ireland a lethal neglect of public duty will, at worst, lead to early retirement on a fat pension.

Vicky Phelan is challenging the cosy culture of blameless delinquency. Last week on TV3's Tonight Show, Ivan Yates asked her whether apologies from ministers were enough.

She said no, it was those involved in her case who should apologise, and even that would not be enough. "They have to be accountable," she said.

Judging by the long list of public scandals where nobody lost their job, that is not likely to happen here, even after 17 women have lost their lives.

Eddie Molloy, long a lone voice for public service reform, writing in the Irish Independent, was the only specialist writer to cut to the core issue of accountability.

The heading on his piece said it all: "Lack of effective accountability the biggest weakness in scandal-ridden health service."

Molloy began by quoting Dr Tracey Cooper, the former boss of Hiqa, who, on leaving, left us with this home truth: "The problem is we never had any consequences."

He listed many secondary causes of HSE malfunction including politicisation of the health service, dated professional demarcations and a culture of concealment.

But his final conclusion? "The most malignant underlying cause is the lack of effective accountability."

A conversation at any supermarket checkout last week showed the public agrees strongly with Vicky Phelan and Eddie Molloy about lack of accountability.

An angry public want delinquent public servants held to account, and if found guilty of dereliction of duty, publicly named, shamed and punished.

In practice that means a series of severe sanctions, ranging from loss of jobs to prosecution and even custodial sentences.

But precedent after precedent proves that nobody in the public service is likely to be punished even for a lethal neglect of duty.

Why? Simply because politicians of all parties are complicit with public sector unions in a culture where nobody loses their job even if others lose their lives.

Public sector apologists complain that calls for consequences could destroy morale - as they did when the net was closing in the Maurice McCabe case.

Common sense and history, however, back the public's belief that the threat of losing your reputation or your job leads to real reform.

The case of Admiral Byng confirms that view. Most of us only remember Byng because of Voltaire's cynical reference in his novel Candide.

"In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."

But Voltaire's cynicism conceals a truth about the value of public sanctions in creating permanent change.

Byng was not executed for being a coward (as is commonly thought) but for not doing his duty - which was to take risks by pressing the French fleet.

Nobody learned that lesson better than Nelson. Fifty years after the firing squad finished its work he laid down the law of duty to his naval officers.

"Duty is the great business of a sea officer; all private considerations must give way to it, however painful it may be."

Nelson himself was the product of a new fighting spirit that followed the shooting of Byng for not showing enough.

The great naval historian NAM Rodger is adamant that far from destroying morale, the execution of Admiral Byng energised young officers.

"The fate of Byng taught them that even the most powerful political friends might not save an officer who failed to fight."

Rodgers says that Byng's death, "created a culture of aggressive determination among British Naval officers that set them apart from their foreign contemporaries".

He says this gave them a psychological advantage because, "British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked. But more than that, they expected to be beaten".

From this fighting tradition flowed Nelson's famously aggressive tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar.

His orders were simple even if they required considerable seamanship. "Never mind manoeuvers, always go straight at 'em".

Go straight at 'em should be enjoined on all public servants, including politicians, whether combating cancer, housing our people, or calling out the fat-cats whose dereliction of duty demeans the public service.


Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool also subscribe to Nelson's policy of "go straight at 'em".

The spectacle of the terrible triplets, Salah, Firmino and Mane, speeding for goal like sharks, scattering defenders like sprats, exhilarates football fans from Cork to Cairo.

Klopp's system seems to be a synthesis of the best of both German and English football styles - what he learned at Dortmund for himself, and what he learned at Liverpool by breathing the air at Anfield.

Liverpool's lethal attacks combine Klopp's pressing style with the fire of traditional English football: long balls, physicality and 'go straight at 'em' forays from open play.

But the elusive element in Klopp's success is the mystic and majestic role played by Liverpool fans.

Who can forget their finest hour, the gruelling game against AC Milan in 2005, still hailing their heroes as they headed for the dressing rooms at half-time, three goals down?

As the Liverpool players licked their wounds, and listened to Rafa Benitez's call for a quick goal, they could also hear their 40,000 fans singing in the stands.

Liverpool came out like lions and tore into Milan. The rest is history, another rich lode in the golden mine at Anfield that keeps producing golden boot.

Add Mo Salah to the mix and it adds up to something even bigger than football. "Mo" is Salah's friendly first name, chanted affectionately by adoring Liverpool fans at Anfield in tribute to his unbeatable, unfazed, unstoppable footballing genius.

But Mo's full first name is Mohammed. As a global football hero he sends out powerful positive signals against prejudice.

Cairo cafes are now packed with Liverpool supporters, Arab fans almost as fanatical as the Anfield breed.

In the recent presidential election, more than a million Egyptians spoiled their votes to write his name in the ballot so that he came third.

Likewise, when Liverpool fans proclaim their love for their Muslim hero at Anfield they are also striking a blow against the bitter racist side of Brexit.

That good karma is another reason Liverpool will win in Kiev.

Sunday Independent

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