Valuing loyalty above duty in government

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 01:00

Paying lip service to the notion of transparency in public life erodes confidence. Without robust political support for the release of relevant information, the prospect of ensuring individual, managerial or corporate accountability becomes vanishingly small. In opposition, Fine Gael was committed to these concepts and promoted their role in ensuring a new style of government. Unfortunately, that reforming zeal has faded, if recent comments by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter are taken as indicators.

The Taoiseach has appeared lukewarm in his determination to ensure that Frank Flannery, a prominent Fine Gael strategist, serving board member and former chief executive of Rehab, should reveal all details of his financial arrangements with that organisation. For his part, Mr Shatter wondered what would be achieved by former Garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly appearing before an Oireachtas justice committee. He also declined to comment on whether Mr Connolly should co-operate with an inquiry set up by the Government. Such limited responses suggest that whistleblowing and public accountability have limited appeal in Government.

Both men should recall the damage caused by former party leader John Bruton to his own leadership and public credibility. Having campaigned in opposition for arrangements that would ensure Dáil questions were answered fully and properly, he defended withholding information – as taoiseach – on the grounds that “the right question” had not been asked. That self-serving approach found little public acceptance in 1995. And it has gathered no friends since then.

Loss of public confidence in the banking system, in the Catholic Church and in politics can be traced to a succession of scandals, blunders, cover-ups and denials. The only way that damage can be repaired is through genuine openness and transparency and a determination to do better. Support for friends and colleagues can be an admirable trait. But there are times when official duty and personal responsibility to uphold established standards of behaviour has to take precedence. That is what public service, transparency and accountability are all about. Valuing loyalty above duty leads to elitism and rots the fabric of democracy.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore called on Mr Flannery in the Dáil to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts while Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan suggested he would do so “if it was in the public interest”. There can be no subjective decision-making here. Full disclosure of how public money has been spent is as central to public confidence as the proper behaviour of public servants. Flaws identified by opposition parties in administrative practices do not disappear when they enter government. They simply take on different aspects.