| 19.5°C Dublin

I don't know about art - but I know what I like


John McNulty and the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, Dublin

John McNulty and the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, Dublin

John McNulty and the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, Dublin

God knows why John McNulty was so eager to be a member of the board of IMMA. The quango - grandly dubbed the Irish Museum of Modern Art - is hardly the obvious place for a man who describes himself as a "businessman".

Indeed, IMMA is a bit of mystery.

It is a haven for artists that helps itself to artistic licence in bucketfuls. A businessman like John would hardly fit in with the cavalier attitude to commerce so obvious in this outfit.

Last week, I tried to find out a bit more about IMMA, the channel chosen by the Government to smooth John's election to the Seanad.

So I sought its 2013 accounts. No such accounts are available - yet. Nor was any explanation immediately available from its director, Sarah Glennie.

She told me that she would have to check with the secretary why the figures were now three months late being filed in the Oireachtas Library, that there was a process etc, etc. Later on she assured me they would be ready by October 31.

Perhaps such tedious procedures do not apply to artists.

Nor, apparently, do tiresome tasks like keeping the quango's website up to date. On Thursday I was interested in the board appointment prior to John's. What was the name of the director appointed in May this year? Glennie happily told me that she was none other than Jane Dillon Byrne, the Labour councillor who lost her council seat in May. Ouch.

Well, they share out the spoils equally in this Coalition. Very democratic. Within days of her loss Jane was consoled with a seat on the board of IMMA. Of course, it had nothing to do with her Labour connections.

So I turned to the IMMA website to see what it had to say about Jane. The answer was. . . absolutely nothing. She is still a non-person. The Labour loyalist's arrival on the board had not reached the website.

The same website describes its director Sarah Glennie as "currently director of the Irish Film Institute (IFI)". Sarah left the IFI more than two years ago.

For an organisation that prides itself on the use of social media as a marketing tool, IMMA seems to be indifferent to the need for up-to-date information on the internet.

IMMA has 83 employees. Perhaps once every two years one of them could check the website?

Indeed, the latest annual report (for 2012 - now 18 months out of date) provides absolutely no information about its directors. Except their initials and surnames. No Christian names. No jobs or careers. No CVs. No photographs. The directors might have recently escaped from nearby Mountjoy Jail for all we citizens are going to be told.

We know only that they have one thing in common: they are all political appointees.

A sleepy quango. What an ideal dumping ground for failed councillors or aspiring senators.

No doubt IMMA does good work and has talented directors - but it is just one of hundreds of quangos being abused by Government to give a leg-up to its cronies or to cushion their falls.

Last week, the Coalition was caught red-handed abusing quangos for political advantage.

A terrible sickness has afflicted the entire galaxy of quangos. Decay has set in. No wonder the state monopolies like An Post, the DAA, Bord na Mona, CIE, Bord Gais and others see staff morale at rock bottom. Such contempt for quangos is certain to influence the bottom line. If the shareholder sees semi-states primarily as a vehicle for political patronage, its attitude will be reflected first by the directors, next by the top staff, and finally it will contaminate the entire outfit.

Recently, state businesses have suffered an orgy of appointments from departing ministers. The most prolific practitioner has been Phil Hogan, the now former minister for the environment.

Phil himself was the beneficiary of the most lucrative piece of patronage in the gift of the Taoiseach. A Kenny loyalist , he was rewarded for his troubles with the €250,000-a-year job as European Commissioner.

A recipient of patronage, Phil in turn dished the goodies out in spades before he left Environment for Europe. He appointed no fewer than seven ex-councillors to state boards just before he exited the Cabinet.

These included such luminaries as FG's Michael 'Spike' Nolan and former Labour councillor Henry Upton.

Just weeks before his resignation, another former minister - Pat Rabbitte - boosted the fortunes of former FG TD John Farrelly by making him a director of Bord na Mona, while simultaneously picking out ex-Labour councillor Denis Leonard for the same quango.

Fine Gael's James Reilly pulled a similar stunt before he departed the Health ministry, sending another Labour loser - Ciaran Byrne - to the Board of the Food Safety Authority. Both government parties appoint each other's pals.

The Government is eroding the reputation of potentially healthy businesses. There is a woeful whiff about the semi-states, businesses unique because they are being constantly exploited by their shareholders.

Such preferment for party supporters is not restricted to less important quangos like IMMA or the Food Safety Authority. It goes right to the top, invading the most sensitive commercial sanctuaries. The appointment of Mari Hurley, a trustee of Fine Gael, to the €50,000-a-year board of Nama in May, shocked the most hardened observers.

Hurley was not even subjected to any of the cosmetic interviews introduced by the Government as a cover for political appointments. She was parachuted onto the board.

Remember, the guys who appointed Hurley to Nama are the same patrons who pick the boards of the NTMA and the state-owned banks.

Is no state body sacred? Surely the fragile state of the banks is too serious for their boardrooms to become retirement homes for former politicians?

Incredibly, the banks still nurse creatures known as "public interest" directors. These include former Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh, former Finance Minister Ray McSharry and former Tanaiste Dick Spring.

But what of the juiciest reward of all in the Government's gift - the little-known peach, the board of the obscure European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)?

Last year, the FG-led Government quietly nominated its chosen one to this €172,000-a-year gig with its preferential tax rate and expenses to boot. The prize went to Sean Donlon, a 72-year-old career diplomat with little or no banking experience.

He just happened to have been special adviser to John Bruton in the Nineties and, more recently, a special adviser to current Finance Minister Michael Noonan. His predecessors included former Fianna Fail TDs Eoin Ryan, Brian Hillery and PD leader Des O'Malley. Banking experience was obviously not necessary.

Mr Donlon, whose Fine Gael pedigree stretches back into the Seventies, was receiving his earthly reward before his heavenly one.

In the coming weeks, a new RTE chairman and at least four members of the Authority are due to be appointed. The announcement has been delayed more than once already, no doubt because Cabinet members are squabbling about which of their protegees is given the nod. Do not expect media experience to be essential.

And God help us when they announce the new "independent" Garda Authority. And the next politically appointed judges.

IMMA's experience is in the halfpenny place.

Sunday Indo Business