Wednesday 19 June 2019

You've heard of the 'Deep State' - now meet the 'Shallow State'

There's a place where the politicians meet lobbyists to discuss how to make things better

HERE’S WHERE THE SHALLOW STATE COMES IN: From left, Finian McGrath, Regina Doherty, Paul Kehoe, Ciaran Conlon, Stephen Lynam and Ross MacMathuna
HERE’S WHERE THE SHALLOW STATE COMES IN: From left, Finian McGrath, Regina Doherty, Paul Kehoe, Ciaran Conlon, Stephen Lynam and Ross MacMathuna
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

You've heard of the "Deep State"? It's an allegedly sinister hidden state-within-the-state, up to all sorts of carry-on. Intelligence agencies, groups of higher civil servants - that kind of thing.

We have a little yarn here about something we might call the "Shallow State".

This consists of a layer of nonsense grafted onto the public service by ministers who've seen too many episodes of The West Wing.

For years now, Ministers have loved having "special" advisers, their own personal James Bond, to lean on. These "special" people are paid by the State but loyal to the boss.

Last week it emerged that journalist Ken Foxe got stiffed by one of the agencies of our Shallow State.

I've never met Mr Foxe and I know nothing of his background - but he appears to be one of the most irritating people in the country. And I mean that in a good way.

He's curious. He wants to know what politicians and other public servants do all day and he seeks out that information and passes it on to us.

And some people, who are used to being untouchable, find that irritating.

This methodical monitoring of the activities of the State - sometimes known as journalism - is done through careful use of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Often, the information returned is routine, nothing to get excited about - and that's fine. It's good when the State ticks over, providing the services it's supposed to provide, without larceny, misbehaviour or fuss.

At other times - well, at one stage Foxe assembled volumes of detail on politicians' expenses, and we discovered these people were quietly rewarding themselves in line with their extravagant self-regard.

As a result, some of them were highly embarrassed.

These days, some government offices have therapists on hand to cope with Ministerial distress whenever anyone utters the words, "Minister, Ken Foxe on Line Two".

Enda and his cronies had a lot of goodies to hand out to party loyalists after the 2016 election. Paul Kehoe and Regina Doherty were to be Super Junior Ministers, allowed sit at Cabinet. And the independents wanted a similar plum for Finian McGrath.

Nice work if you can get it.

You get your TD pay, which is €87,258.

Plus your junior minister pay, €34,381.

And the three Super Juniors were each entitled to a €15,829 bonus on top of all that.

Total: €137,468 each.

The three Super Juniors were settling in when someone noticed the legislation allowed for only two Super Juniors. The Super Junior Bonus was stopped for all three, while Enda and Paschal and the lads thought about it.

Those three bonuses were part of a massive array of fringe benefits that politicians pay each other. From May 2016 right up to four days before Christmas, civil servants worked hard at matching the lucky ones with whatever title they were given, and matching that with the appropriate bonus.

There's nine grand for chairing this and three grand for attending that, and 13 grand apparently just for the craic - and on and on. Santa doesn't have as long a list of goodies to dispense as an incoming government.

With some pressure from Paschal's office, the civil servants struggled to get the work done so the bonuses would kick in by Christmas 2016.

What to do about Paul and Regina and Finian?

Eventually, some whizz-kid came up with a plan: Paul and Finian would be Super Juniors, sitting at Cabinet. And Regina would get the short straw.

But - and here's the clever bit - she'd also sit at Cabinet, not as Super Junior but as Government Whip.

And - what a coincidence - they decided that the Government Whip should have precisely the same bonus as the Super Junior gig - €15,829.

Curious, Ken Foxe put in some FOI questions and got back 361 pages of tedious detail, through which he plodded to find out how the three-into-two problem was solved. Last March he wrote a piece on this.

In June, Brendan Howlin pointed out in the Dail that three ministers into two can't legally go.

The problem was sent to the Attorney-General, for a legal opinion. In July, the AG ruled that Regina Doherty wasn't entitled to the money.

Behind closed doors, Fine Gael worthies huddled. Regina agreed to repay the money. And on July 26 arrangements were put in place for this.

Almost three weeks later, on August 14, the irritating Mr Foxe - who had found out that the AG was involved - sent an email to the Department of Public Expenditure, asking if they'd had a legal ruling.

And here's where the Shallow State comes in.

The query was that day passed on to Stephen Lynam, an adviser to Paschal Donohoe. He sent an instruction to the civil servants: "Sit tight on this for now".

The following day, Lynam gave civil servants a reply to send to Foxe: It said the AG's advice "was recently received by the Department and is now being considered. The matter will be dealt with in due course".

This was untrue. The AG's ruling had been received weeks earlier and had already been acted on.

The untrue statement, Lynam wrote, was to be credited to an anonymous "spokesman for the minister".

Why Fine Gael wanted to hold back this information is unknown; as is who else was involved in the decision to tell the reporter an untruth.

Last week, Harry McGee revealed in The Irish Times that no fewer than "two former Fine Gael senators and four special advisers to ministers" have been lobbying the Fine Gael government on behalf of the drinks business.

Among those working to make Ireland safer for alcohol peddlers is Ciaran Conlon.

Ciaran worked for Fine Gael, close to Enda Kenny, for years. He then became an adviser to Richard Bruton. On arriving, he was told the pay was €80,000; he said he understood it to be €127,000.

Bruton sought that salary for him; Michael Noonan said no, as did Brendan Howlin. Enda Kenny, while imposing a damaging austerity policy on the rest of us, personally intervened and got the €127,000 for Conlon.

(How do I know all this? I remembered I'd saved a story by Ken Foxe in 2011, when he used FOI to dig out the emails.)

Ciaran Conlon is now lobbying for Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland.

Also lobbying for the drinks business, according to McGee, is Ross MacMathuna, former special advisor to Simon Coveney (salary capped at €92k, Ross was allowed breach the cap, to €118,000).

Ross now lobbies for the Alcohol and Beverage Foundation of Ireland, which is a creature of Ibec, the business pressure group.

And remember Stephen Lynam, who told the civil servants to tell Ken Foxe that Regina Doherty's Super Bonus issue would be "dealt with in due course" - even though it was dealt with weeks earlier?

Well, it turns out Stephen used to work for Fine Gael. In Enda's office.

Then he went to - you'll never guess - the Alcohol and Beverage Federation of Ireland (Hi, there, fancy meeting you here!) before he became a special advisor to Paschal.

The Shallow State is that intersection where political parties and lobbying companies and Ibec and business meet to discuss how to make Ireland a better place.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss