Oliver Callan: It is time to fire a few top civil servants
We need to be able to hold senior civil servants to account for decisions that harm citizens
Maurice McCabe: “Finding justice for Maurice McCabe is a side issue to the boxset drama series that is politics.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
“Izza ’sgrace, Joe.” That’s the sound of how every Irish scandal begins and ends. It’s the wheeze of shock at the revelation of a wrong done to an individual or group by the powerful at the start. It’s also the sigh heard at the end, when the wrongdoer is either promoted aside or retired lucratively.
The McCabe scandal marks the latest landslide of public confidence in State institutions. But the public’s scandal memory bank is already full. What surprised me most about about this latest episode of Irish cluster-shambles is how little of the story non-media people I’ve met have consumed . Sure, they knew there was a scandal but the minutiae of the details, the allegations and smear campaigns, cut-and-paste jobs, conspiracies, timelines and political involvement was all too much.
The ordinary decent people were distracted by ordinary indecent people on a Late Late Show Valentines’ special where the sexual humour felt a tad sinister. Hundreds complained about the icky vibe on the programme, having seemingly moved their outrage on from the McCabe revelations on the same channel 24 hours earlier.
The media was distracted too, gleefully examining how the whole episode might affect the leadership of Fine Gael or the prospects of an election. Even now, finding justice for Maurice McCabe is a side issue to the boxset drama series that is politics.
The McCabe scandal marks the latest landslide of public confidence in State institutions. But the public’s scandal memory bank is already full
The quantity of scandals has eroded our ability to measure the gravity of each new one. Take RTÉ and the HSE, two organisations that regularly annoy the public in how so many are paid so much to sit in a building doing so little. The HSE deals with life and death, the worst that can happen on RTÉ is a bad Amy Huberman drama, yet the anger is often the same.
Pensions for bailed out bankers
Dwelling on scandals is the opposite to mindfulness. So we try to forget how, after the 2008 crash, bailed out bankers were retired off by the dozen, over 160 of them reported to be on pensions of over €100,000 in 2012. The regulators supposed to be watching them were given payoffs that would put your chakra right out. Heads never roll, they simply get to roll in it.
As they came to power six years ago, Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan bit their lips expressing outrage over pensions for bankers and retired ministers who protected them and bailed them out. However, they said the pensions were protected by the Constitution and couldn’t be touched. Instead, they surreptitiously cut the pensions of innocent elderly people. Only last week an Age Action report said 35,000 people’s pensions, most of them women, had been cut by up to €1,500 a year because of changes made in 2012. So much for the claim that they protected OAPs during austerity.
Press the red button on your rage remote to open up the maggot-infested world of Nama, vulture funds and tax avoidance schemes. Press it twice to revisit capital project overspends or the Willy Wonka world of Irish charity bosses’ salaries and expense accounts. Want to find out what’s been done to stop all these scandals happening again? Throw the remote out the window and knit yourself a new subconscience.
The McCabe family are rightly demanding a tribunal of inquiry. Yet it’s hard to detach the hope of what a tribunal might achieve from the reality of what the Moriarty Tribunal Report resulted in. Six years on, Michael Lowry sat on a Dáil Committee examining the proposed media expansion of Denis O’Brien’s INM. Press all the red buttons to find out why this is crazier than a bag of bats.
Collapsing trust in public bodies
By the end of this year, six or seven commissions of investigation or inquiry will be under way into various scandals, plus a possible tribunal. That’s a lot of redacted reports to get half-excited about for a few hours some time in the future when the story has lost all steam and the public’s memory bank has gone off-shore. Delays often mean incriminating evidence ends up down the back of radiators. If they ever upgrade the heating systems on Merrion Street, it’ll make the Third Secret of Fatima seem like a Kinder Surprise.
When mere citizens face allegations, as McCabe did, they go through the harsh grind of the criminal process. If you’re high enough on the State roster of privilege, you get a commission or a tribunal which cannot impose penalties or produce anything admissible in court.
We need a basic system of holding senior civil servants to account for decisions that cost taxpayers or harm the rights of citizens. If the worst penalty is a huge pension, we’re not doing it right. The Government set up the Civil Service Accountability Board in 2014. It cost €2 million and has met three times. You should read the minutes, it will only take you mere minutes. They don’t even seem to talk about the purpose of the board, like how to hold anyone to account.
By the end of this year, six or seven commissions of investigation or inquiry will be under way into various scandals, plus a possible tribunal. That’s a lot of redacted reports to get half-excited about
The last minutes are from July 2016. In summary, the Tánaiste didn’t show up, there are meetings to be set up and processes to be looked at. An annual report for 2016 was promised. Guess what? Nobody knows which radiator it ended up falling behind.
The way to restore collapsing trust in public bodies is not to set up more. There is clearly a fear in Leinster House about the possible domino effect of sacking a senior civil servant and stripping away their pension. The disgruntled might seek to bring down others with them, the curious might look up the chain of command for accountability. The rippling thirst for justice wouldn’t stop until it reached the warm glow of politicians’ pensions. That above all else would hurt them where their hearts truly lie.