Was NewERA only a fig leaf for the sale of State assets?


It is well over a year since Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin announced the establishment of the new body which was a commitment in the programme for Government and “central to the Government’s plans for job creation and investment and for reforming how the Government manages its semi-State companies.”

As is normal with such grandiose plans the details of how this would all come about were not revealed at the time and it would not be stretching things to say that 12 months on we are not much the wiser .

That is not to say that nothing has been happening. The director of NewERA, Eileen Fitzpatrick, has assembled a small team and has been busy building relationships and analysing the State companies within NewERA’s purview; ESB, Bord Gáis, EirGrid, Bord na Móna and Coillte.

The body is also advising the Government on the sale of Bord Gáis assets and also the stake in Aer Lingus as well as the funding squeeze at CIÉ.

By all accounts the agency has also done a lot of the heavy lifting involved in getting ready to implement its mandated task of “reviewing capital investment plans of these commercial semi-State companies from a shareholder perspective and . . . identify possible synergies between investment programmes of different State companies.”

It is true that there has been little by way of tangible results in this regard, but that is easily explained. NewERA is toothless, having no statutory powers to make State companies do anything.

Not only that, it is trying to muscle in on the power nexus between the large commercial State companies and the various Government departments responsible for them.

These relationships – both the functional and dysfunctional ones – go back decades and one suspects that no matter how much they might hate each other, neither side really welcomes the arrival of Fitzpatrick and her crew of number crunchers asking questions such as whether or not the taxpayer is getting a market return on the capital they have tied up in these companies.

It rather looks as though both sides are prepared to tolerate NewERA having some sort of consultative role, but that seems to be the size of it.

This presumably explain why the Government has been so slow to put NewERA on a promised statutory footing with the power to actually affect change in the way commercial State companies are run.

In practice this would mean delivering on last September’s commitment to moving NewERA “towards a full holding company status which could own the shares in commercial semi-States”.

The lack of enthusiasm of the State companies and their line departments for this development is understandable. However, it was ever going to be thus and the NewERA “vision” was never going to become a reality unless it was driven through by Noonan and Howlin in the face of such opposition.

Why the two Ministers seem to have fallen out of love with their big idea is less easy to understand.

The simplest explanation is, of course, pressure of work. Both men have plenty of other, arguably more important things to be getting on with as dictated in the bailout programme.

It is a pretty safe bet that the troika is not putting too much pressure on them to deliver on NewERA. They have made it clear that they want to see State assets sold, not moved around like pieces on a chess board.

A more cynical view would be that NewERA was really only a fig leaf for the sale of State assets and allowed the junior Coalition partner to go along with something that for them was extremely fraught politically .

As Ireland’s prospects start to improve and the avoidance of a second bailout starts to look probable rather than merely possible, there must be some in Government, in both parties, who are wondering if it might be possible to sidestep the whole issue: if the deal on the legacy bank debt and the Anglo promissory note was good enough maybe privatisations will be unnecessary?

It is a seductive line of reasoning and one we can expect to hear more of as politicians start to wonder if a whole host of electorally counter productive medicine – from property taxes to water charges – will not have to be taken or at least sweetened.

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