Monday 22 July 2019

Moral compasses have been gyrating without finding north

The fundamental lesson of recent times is surely that unprincipled politics and economic collapse go together.

When Charles Haughey was Fianna Fail leader, loyalty was everything
When Charles Haughey was Fianna Fail leader, loyalty was everything
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

The furore surrounding the McNulty affair has focused on the shameless favouritism involved in appointing people of questionable qualifications to the boards of state institutions because of their political connections.

While expressions of disgust at this virtual appropriation of state boards for party political purposes are justified, there are very serious consequences of this practice that need highlighting, over and above the mere unfairness of jobs for the boys - namely the risk that colonising state boards with 'our own' poses to these institutions.

This country was brought to its knees by failures of corporate governance, meaning the failure of boards of directors and other regulatory bodies to exercise proper oversight of the institutions entrusted to their care.

It was poor governance that caused the implosion of the banks and the collapse of the economy and the grievous damage done to vital institutions across all sectors.

That is why any ministerial tampering with boards is grossly irresponsible and no longer acceptable. If recent history has taught us anything it is that there is a direct connection between low standards in high places and catastrophic institutional failure.

The cronyism of Fianna Fail, now being aped by Fine Gael and Labour, was at the core of the discredited political culture that caused such mayhem.

The fundamental lesson of the past four or five decades is surely that unprincipled politics and economic collapse go together. Any attempt to uncouple the two - as Mr Noonan tried to do at the recent Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting - is a deceit that we swallow at our peril.

Mr Noonan was reported as "rescuing" the Taoiseach by persuading delegates to "move on" from the McNulty stroke and to focus instead on the economy, if they wanted to be successful at the next election.

John Deasy remarked that "the Taoiseach seems to feel as if he can do what he likes so long as the economy is doing well".

We are constantly told "it's the economy stupid". What's stupid is to believe that ethical, accountable government is "nice to have" and that dodgy politics has no bearing on the "real issues that affect people's lives".

Most State boards, it should be said, function quite well in spite of the prevalence of politically connected appointees, just as our judicial system does well in spite of the politicising of judicial appointments. Whether these appointees were the best persons for the job is another question.

So, what is the problem, then, if in general these boards carry out their functions diligently? The problem lies not so much in questionable qualifications but in the matter of appointees' loyalties.

A malaise at the heart of our political system is that when hard choices have to be made, loyalty to the party usually takes precedence over truth, transparency and doing the right thing.

Over the past week, Heather Humphreys, Simon Harris and Colm Burke - to name just three - demonstrated their loyalty to the Taoiseach by going on air to offer contorted explanations for what was a crass political stroke.

Circling the wagons is standard practice no matter how reprehensible the behaviour.

Saddest of all was to observe the Taoiseach, in the very act of confessing to the Dail that he had fallen far short of the standards he espouses, seemingly unable to rise to those standards.

During the Haughey-Ahern era, the iron imposition of loyalty as the governing value spread like a destructive virus from the political system through vital institutions of the State and far beyond. Therein lies the risk of appointing cronies to boards. By reason of the gift bestowed, the bonds that tie them together and the rewards that come from continuing loyalty, they will be expected to favour party interests whenever they are at stake in any matter, big or small.

Loyalty is a noble trait but when party loyalty trumps the public interest it is a misnomer to call it loyalty. It is more apt to call it venal collusion - or in more serious cases of 'loyalty', criminal conspiracy would be a more accurate term.

Last May, the Taoiseach published a 'Draft National Risk Assessment' in order to "identify the risks Ireland faces and therefore ensure appropriate prevention and action". In his strongly worded introduction, he said: "We must work to ensure that the terrible reversal of fortune . . . with personally devastating consequences for many of our citizens . . . never recurs."

This national risk-management initiative is an extremely important initiative but missing from the dozens of risks listed - ranging from EU fragmentation and energy supply to nuclear accidents and cyber security - is any reference to the primary, root cause of our "terrible reversal of fortune", and one that remains as a "real and present danger", namely the prevailing political culture.

"One of the priorities for our country and people is to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of the past," the Taoiseach added. In this context, it has been unsettling to see moral compasses gyrating all over the place at the heart of government for nearly three weeks, without yet finding true north.

Sunday Independent

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