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Andrew Lynch: We cannot afford the ransom if Enda and co are kidnapped by their Yes Minister minders

THERE'S a famous scene in the classic sitcom Yes Minister that perfectly sums up the relationship between senior politicians and the civil servants who look after them.

Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby tells his deputy that if he wants to talk the minister out of doing something, he tells him the decision is 'courageous' rather than 'controversial'.

"'Controversial' only means this will lose you votes," he explains, "but 'courageous' means this will lose you the election!"

Our new Government may not need to worry about elections for a while, but they have to make some monumental decisions over the next few months that could make or break them in the long run.

Captured

A comprehensive spending review has been promised for September, with Enda Kenny already warning that deep budget cuts simply cannot be avoided.

We already know these decisions will be controversial -- so the big question now is whether they will be courageous as well.

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin made a telling remark this week when he declared his intention of making sure that his colleagues are not "captured" by their departments into defending the existing level of spending.

In other words, he is afraid that ministers who walk into their new offices with the best of intentions will start to develop Stockholm Syndrome as soon as the modern-day Sir Humphreys get their claws into them.

Unfortunately, it may already be too late -- because no matter how hard they fight behind closed doors, this Government is already struggling in a straitjacket they created all by themselves.

As a blizzard of economic reports suggests that our situation is even worse than we thought, some of Labour's heaviest hitters are starting to talk tough.

Pat Rabbitte has hinted that the trade unions needn't consider him a soft touch, pointing out that further public service cuts may be impossible to avoid.

Ruairi Quinn is warning teachers that if the Croke Park agreement does not deliver real savings, pay reductions could be on the way. Even Joan Burton is getting in on the act, promising a major crackdown on social welfare fraud that will include visits to people's homes.

Will any of this happen? Any minister who wants to achieve something truly radical will have to get it past their departmental staff first. The civil service are not called the 'permanent government' for nothing -- and if the death of the Celtic Tiger proved anything, it's that our political culture is not exactly comfortable with thinking outside the box.

Michael Noonan may pose as the responsible new steward of the nation's finances, but the Department of Finance is still run by exactly the same people whose economic predictions proved to be about as reliable as Rory McIlroy's putting.

The same goes for every other Government department, stuffed to the gills with civil servants whose guiding philosophy seems to be 'steady as she sinks'.

It may be possible to face them down -- but it will require the sort of political gumption that few of our ministers have ever shown before.

Sadly, Fine Gael and Labour were so desperate to win the election that they made all sorts of promises they must now wish they could erase.

Hammer

Income tax increases, social welfare cuts and selling any more than €2m worth of State assets have all been ruled out.

That leaves them with precious few options for next December's Budget -- which means they will either have to break a few pledges or hammer the public sector so hard that industrial strife becomes all but inevitable.

Brendan Howlin is right. If we're to have any hope of recovery, our new ministers must battle hard to avoid being kidnapped by the Sir Humphreys looking over their shoulders -- because to put it bluntly, the Irish people cannot afford to pay the ransom.


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