Reform is not abstract: misgovernment does real, tangible harm to our citizens

Opinion: Three stories from the past week – about Phil Hogan, the HSE and developer Tom McFeely – show the need for action

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 12:01

Deep within the political system, there is a belief that reform is an abstraction for anoraks. It is of no real interest to most citizens because it has no tangible effect on their lives. But there is nothing abstract about misgovernment. Let’s take three concrete stories from last week alone.

First, there’s Harry McGee’s extraordinary story in last Wednesday’s Irish Times about Phil Hogan’s plans to abolish an entire layer of governance – the 80 town councils that are the closest thing we have to real democracy. Leave aside the merits or otherwise of abolition – most people would surely agree that this is a significant step. And how was it to be taken? By a phone call. Hogan’s “reform” bill has more than 65 sections. Fine Gael decided that it did not even merit a proper Cabinet meeting. There would be an “incorporeal” cabinet meeting – a fancy name for a quick phone call to whichever ministers were available. As it happened, the Labour ministers – to their credit – objected and the “incorporeal” meeting never happened.

Lacking in seriousness
The fact remains, however, that the dominant party in government thought that this was all perfectly fine; that large and complex changes can be made in rushed, unprepared phone conversations. This is the reality of top-down government: it is hasty, sloppy and fundamentally lacking in seriousness.

The second case in point is the report published by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan on the HSE’s handling of an extremely vulnerable citizen who needed the State to be on her side. An 11-year-old girl made disclosures that “included but were not confined to reports of repeated instances of violent rape by an adult male and involved death threats and assault with a knife”. Yet she failed to get any therapeutic help from the HSE. Her dealings with a crucial arm of the State meant, as she told Logan, that she “no longer trusted the HSE to look after her best interests and that she felt betrayed by their actions”. Isn’t that the very definition of a system of governance that is not working: that a citizen in dire need ends up feeling that her State does not have her best interests at heart?

If you read Logan’s report, it is clear that the key issues in this case are responsibility and accountability. This appalling failure happened because at no stage was any one person responsible for dealing with the needs of this child. And as a result, of course, no one can be personally accountable for the failure. Neither in Logan’s report nor in the HSE’s response is any individual blamed for anything. No one will be disciplined. No one is answerable.

The third concrete detail from last week is in Michael O’Farrell’s encounter with the developer of Priory Hall, Tom McFeely, reported in the Mail on Sunday. Mr McFeely reportedly tells us: “There’s no person in the Free State can get me in jail. There’s no way in forever and a day I am going to prison.” His confidence speaks for itself and, on the basis of all known history, seems entirely rational.

These three vignettes point to an executive that is both sloppy and arrogant; a system of delivery of public services and of public administration that struggles with basic ideas of responsibility and accountability; and a justice system that has repeatedly failed to ensure that wealthy people who wreak havoc with other people’s lives do not enjoy impunity. We can add the acknowledged failure of parliament to be, in the Government’s own words, more than “an observer of the political process”. These multiple levels of misgovernment inflict immense, tangible damage on citizens. Only a genuine, coherent, multi-layered “democratic revolution” that puts citizens in charge of their own republic can prevent that harm from continuing.

PS: There has been considerable comment over the weekend to the effect that I advised readers to risk spoiling their votes in the Seanad referendum by writing the word “reform” on the ballot. I did no such thing, of course. As someone who has been publicly active on these issues, I thought it proper to tell readers that I was engaging in a small personal protest at the Government’s insistence on presenting citizens with a false “choice” between abolishing bicameralism and keeping a discredited institution. This action, as I wrote, was “for myself”: I have far too much respect for readers to suggest that they are (a) not literate enough to understand this distinction or (b) not adult enough to make their own decisions for themselves.

Arbitrary and inconsistent
There is, however, a more general question to be addressed. The ruling out by some returning officers of votes that had a clear indication of preference simply because something was written on the ballot paper is arbitrary, inconsistent and undemocratic. The instruction given on polling cards and in polling stations is simply to mark an X opposite Yes or No.

There is no indication that those who do this properly may – or may not – have their votes discounted if they write a word on the bottom of the paper.

Is there not a legal case to be taken by a public-spirited lawyer?

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