Monday 20 January 2020

Shane Ross: Presidents of waste flying high

BOOKIES Paddy Power is offering interesting odds for the next President of Ireland and the first directly elected Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Businessman and independent senator Feargal Quinn is moving up in the betting for the mayoralty. Today he is fourth favourite at 8/1. Paddy Power tells me that there has been steady money for Feargal in recent weeks.

The supermarket king protests a lack of interest, but let us hope that someone twists his arm, as the first executive Lord Mayor of Dublin will need plenty of business expertise. He will have a big budget, awesome responsibility and discretionary spending powers never before enjoyed by a mayor.

No-one has a better business pedigree than Feargal. He took the most difficult of all business decisions, selling his family supermarket chain at the top of the market. His record makes him ideally equipped to promote the prosperity of the people of Dublin. Besides, he carries no party political baggage.

But Feargal is an outsider. Insiders are queuing up for the jobs.

Two talented, but apparently equally reluctant, candidates for the Presidency have seen their odds shortened in recent weeks. Labour's Michael D Higgins, an outsider all his life, has leapt to 6/1 in the betting as nearly a grand has been punted on his candidacy. Michael D would set the nation on fire with a passionate campaign for human rights.

Another outsider, Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, is a 20/1 shot. As a champion of the cause of the consumer, she has developed into a delicious scourge of vested business interests. Sadly, she has declared she is not interested.

Emily is offered at the generous odds of 20/1 because she would find it difficult to clinch a nomination. She needs 20 members of the Oireachtas as nominators, a mountain hard to climb for a non-party outsider. Michael D can expect the nomination from Labour if he decides to head for the hustings. And if he runs, he has a great chance, according to the bookies.

Last week Emily was back in the news when she issued her annual report. In her sights was none other than the slovenly but super-powerful monster, the Health Service Executive (HSE).

The launch of Emily's report hardly had the ring of a president in the making, but her assault on the HSE was nevertheless a piece of bad timing for them.

Emily accused the HSE of being "riddled with secrecy". She said her office had been led into an "Alice in Wonderland trip" by the HSE trying to block certain information emerging into the public domain.

Though the report must have been written months ago, Emily was bang on the button; the HSE was in the headlines for another trip. However, this time it wasn't an "Alice in Wonderland trip", but a real one. The HSE had been assisting unnamed citizens to travel the globe.

The story was familiar: a few years ago some genius, somewhere, decided to cross the HSE monster with the prehistoric trade union, Siptu.

The mind boggles. So what was the result of this little union of two antediluvian creatures?

A few beards in an incubator? A Stalinist quango? A baby dinosaur? Hardly an outburst of entrepreneurship?

No, the two promiscuous dinosaurs begot 31 little junkets. Such a happy result is not a normal characteristic of giants of the public sector, but these soul mates sure know how to travel.

The result of their union is deeply embarrassing to both bodies. Suddenly they are busy denying their little love children. As Emily found with her own earlier probings, the HSE knows how to close up like a clam. So does Siptu.

Apparently, an internal HSE audit discovered that it had been transferring €250,000 annually from the Department of Health to Siptu ever since 2002. The money was officially designated for "training" of unskilled workers like caterers, porters and office cleaners in the health service. The HSE's internal audit found that some of the €2.35m routed to the union was spent on 31 trips abroad and on hotel, restaurant and taxi bills.

Enquiries galore have been launched after it was admitted that some officials went on "study trips".

Alarm bells began ringing when it was learned that spouses joined the jaunts. Destinations included such celebrated centres of catering training as Hong Kong, such hives of portering expertise as Australia and such academies of office cleaning as Los Angeles.

The Garda Fraud Squad, the HSE, Dept of Finance, Comptroller & Auditor-General (C&AG) and other heavy hitters have been called in. They should put a dampener on the release of any information.

Denials are pouring out of the woodwork. Siptu says the money never reached its bank account. The big public service union, Impact, refuses to say whether any of its officials travelled. No-one knows who went where or when -- but rumours of big names in the social partnership game are circulating.

Whatever the details of names, addresses and juicy junkets, a bigger question beckons: what in the name of God was the Government doing handing over money to Siptu for anything?

Siptu is a rich trade union with well-paid, well-travelled top brass and a membership of nearly 250,000. Why is the Government quietly giving a trade union €250,000 a year for training? Surely the Government already had a training agency during all those years -- one with the familiar name of Fas?

Ooops. We all know from the Fas story that leading trade unionists loved to travel at government expense. We all know that the top guys in the HSE love to travel too. We know that Fas was a junketeer's paradise, that the Florida junkets were merely the tip of the iceberg where Fas waste was concerned.

Once the Sunday Independent, the C&AG and the Public Accounts Committee started to tackle Fas in detail, the tales of waste in the public service took on a new life. Social partnership was exposed as a cosy arrangement between government, unions and employers. Taxpayers' money, targeted for Fas -- the employment and "training" agency -- was used for junkets.

Now we discover that not only were trade unionists enjoying the joys of Fas board membership but that the HSE was quietly channelling an annual stipend to Siptu for "training". It begs the question: are any other trade unions in receipt of soft payments of this sort? Is this what the social partnership industry brought in its train? Were the sums well disguised? Presumably they were, as routing the annual €250,000 through the HSE channel clothed it in respectability.

While investigators are probing the history of the €2.35m, they might look at the opaque Siptu accounts in depth. They might ask about Siptu's mysterious political fund and the destination of those monies, or even enlighten us about the Siptu company called ITUT which the union's accounts describe as having the lofty objective of "promoting social solidarity". Well, it beats "training".

Significantly there is not a single trade unionist in Paddy Power's top 50 list of runners and riders for the Presidency of Ireland or the Dublin Mayoralty. Nor is the head of the HSE, Brendan Drumm, in the betting.

These unelected and unelectable presidents of wanton waste hold plenty of power, but fly under the radar. Indeed they fly everywhere they can.

Sunday Independent

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