| 6.3°C Dublin

Transparency in public appointments

News that the previous Government had granted independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae the right to nominate three directors each to state bodies illustrates the urgent need for greater transparency in the making of public appointments.

For far too long the directorships of semi-states and other public bodies have been doled out to party loyalists. Ministers of all parties used the patronage opportunities represented by such appointments to reward political allies and contributors, regardless of their aptitude or suitability for the job.

The 12-day gap between the last general election and the first meeting of the new Dail provided a demonstration of this spoils system at its very worst as Fianna Fail moved to stuff their cronies onto state boards before the new Government took office.

While governments throughout the world use public appointments to reward their supporters, it should not be beyond the wit of man to devise a system which ensures that those appointees, whatever their political complexion, were at least capable of doing to the job.

In the US, all major public appointments, including judges, have to be approved by the Senate. While US presidents continue to use public appointments to reward their supporters and contributors, the need to secure Senate approval tends to weed out clearly unsuitable or incompetent nominees.

Unfortunately there is no such brake on the appointment of some to the boards of Irish public bodies. As the number of public bodies has swollen in recent years, with some estimates putting their number, including quangos, at more than 1,400, the quality of their directors has, with some obvious exceptions, slumped alarmingly. When it comes to vacant state directorships one could be forgiven for thinking that only the politically well-connected need apply.

Neither Bertie Ahern nor Brian Cowen followed the example of Roman Emperor Caligula in appointing his horse to public office but some would say they looked after their stablemates.

With many state bodies now responsible for spending tens, and some cases hundreds, of millions of euro, we can no longer afford the cost of such political cronyism.

Yesterday Transport Minister Leo Varadkar publicly advertised for new directors for the CIE group of companies, which include Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann. This is the way forward. Let those who wish to serve on state boards demonstrate their suitability for the role. Varadkar's cabinet colleagues would be well-advised to follow his example. It is only when patently unqualified and unsuitable political hacks are cleared off state boards and replaced with directors who have demonstrated that they are competent to do the job that public confidence in such appointments will be restored.

Irish Independent