Saturday 25 November 2017

The song, sadly, remains the same

John Greene

John Greene

It beggars belief that having got rid of a government which had made an art form out of cronyism of the most crass kind, those who had shouted loudest on the opposition benches now leave themselves open to the same criticism.

In the dying days of the Fianna Fáil government there was an orgy of appointments to vacancies on State boards. Indeed, on the party's last day in government outgoing ministers made nine such appointments. As has been the case for too long with filling positions on State boards, the wrong message was most definitely sent out.

It may well be that some or all of the people appointed are suited to their positions but that is hardly the point. What was so terribly wrong with going through an open and transparent process for filling vacancies on State boards as they arose and allowing the best candidate to rise to the top of that process?

Instead of a culture which fosters the perception that State boards are rewarding sinecures for those who have been loyal to political parties, what was wrong with eschewing that terrible image in favour of creating a system in which these positions are both valued and of value, where board members are chosen for what they can bring to the position in the best interests of the country?

Ultimately, there should be a view that when a vacancy arises on a State board it should be filled after a thorough due diligence is carried out -- and it should be subject to considerable public scrutiny.

Certainly the latter was not just the view of Fine Gael and Labour in opposition at the time, but it was also a pledge to the people that they would introduce radical change and ensure that political cronyism would not become a hallmark of the new regime. More than any other politician, it was Leo Varadkar -- now the minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport -- who protested at the culture.

Here's what he said on the subject in March:

"When it comes to public appointments, we are going to open up the system to new people who have never served on a State board and may have something to offer, make it more transparent and involve the Oireachtas more.

"To kick things off, I have directed that all appointments coming in the next 12 months in the transport, tourism and sport brief be advertised for expressions of interest in the coming weeks and I will also be asking the relevant Oireachtas committee to make recommendations."

Even in his utterances since, there doesn't appear to be reason to doubt the minister's bona fides on this issue but does the same apply to many of his colleagues, some of whom have been involved in politics a long time and are embedded in the Irish political system and all that that entails?

The Cabinet will shortly be asked to give its approval for former Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen to be appointed to the board of the Irish Sports Council, filling the vacancy left by Eamonn Coghlan's departure to the Seanad.

It may well be that a case can be made that Allen is a good choice. The Corkman was a dedicated politician who was first elected to the Dáil in 1981. He was minister for sport between 1994 and 1997. During this time he is credited with putting the groundwork in place for the establisment of the sports council in 1999. Allen was also his party's spokesperson on sport from 1997 to 2002.

But what happened to the notion of scrutiny and transparency promised by Fine Gael? Because on the face of it, and in the absence of any sense of due process having taken place, this decision smacks of the Taoiseach and Co rewarding an old party loyalist for his service.

"I am interested in putting an end to the blatant cronyism," the Taoiseach said in March.

He's sure going about it in a funny way.

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