Dead hand of cronyism evident in jobs for party apparatchiks
BE CAREFUL what you wish for is the phrase that comes to mind when you read that Craig Barrett, the former Intel boss, is offering to serve pro-bono on an Irish State board.
It is not that we worry for Mr Barrett. As a titan of the US boardroom, he could surely hold his own at the Free Legal Aid board down in Cahirciveen.
No, the people who should have been more careful was the Government. Its refusal to engage with Mr Barrett and the 20 or so other heavy-hitting expats who have offered their services is now becoming something of an embarrassment.
There is hardly a quoted company in the Americas or Europe that would not take Barrett’s arm off if he offered his services free. But the Irish Government – in the throes of an external bailout – seems to feel it can do without him.
Justifying its stance is becoming increasingly difficult as the Government was key to the inception of Volunteer 2016, which grew out of the Global Irish Forum held in Farmleigh in September 2009. It is fronted by John Hartnett of the Irish Technology Leadership group, a sort of super network for US-based Irish technology types.
The Fianna Fáil-led government of the day backed the forum enthusiastically, but one suspects its support was more of the “it can’t do any harm” variety rather than a reflection of any enthusiasm on the part of senior civil servants to abrogate their policymaking powers to a self-appointed business elite.
This administration embraced the second forum, held in Dublin Castle last October, with pretty much equal gusto and lack of thought about what it actually wanted from it beyond a few good photo opportunities. Having backed it, though, the only way the Government can justify its lack of enthusiasm for Volunteer 2016 is if it can make a cogent argument along the lines of “its very nice of you to offer, but there really is no need”.
The Institute of Directors – whose members would all be rivals for State board appointments – did make a number of points in this regard, although they backfired somewhat on its chief executive Maura Quinn.
Although, she did make one good point – and it is that the problem with Irish State boards is not that we don’t have enough home-grown talent to populate them. The problem is that so many of the boards don’t seem to function as boards at all, other than in a legal way.
They are seen primarily as a vehicle for political patronage. Appointments are a way of rewarding the party faithful and making sure party interests are protected if not advanced by the organisation’s activities. Appointments remain in the gift of Ministers and the culture of patronage runs deep.
Labour, in its election manifesto, promised to end appointments as a form of patronage and for rewarding insiders. In future, they would be based on a “demonstrable capacity to do the job”, it said. The party promised to advertise vacancies to ensure that Oireachtas committees considered candidates’ suitability.
Fine Gael, in its manifesto, promised to tackle “cronyism and feather-bedding”. As well as scrapping some agencies, the party said paid directorships would be advertised.
Despite chest-thumping while in opposition, both parties have shown no compunction about loading State boards and judiciary with the party faithful. Over six months ago this paper reported that since coming into office earlier that year, the Coalition had appointed at least 20 past or present party members, strategists or donors to State boards. In no case was the link identified at the time the Government announced the appointment.
Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar made three appointments to the Road Safety Authority, including Ronan Melvin, who lives in his constituency and nominated a Fine Gael candidate in the 2009 local elections. He also nominated Young Fine Gael activist Seán Finan. Both fine people, but neither would pretend to be a Craig Barrett.
The list continued.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that fear of the unintended consequences of introducing a cadre of high-calibre outsiders into the Ruritanian world of State bodies is what is holding the Government back here.
But it risks scoring a serious own goal, among the business diaspora and the important constituency in which they work, if it continues to place the preservation of patronage ahead of reform of State bodies.