O'Rourke's attack on rail chief was a politically clever move

 

Ms Mary O'Rourke was, she told a startled nation on Morning Ireland yesterday, "in the bath" when she heard on the 7 a.m. news that the chairman of CIE Mr Brian Joyce had resigned. If she was, she moved pretty smartly to get out of the hot water.

Within minutes her office was on the phone to Morning Ireland, explaining how an audit of spending on rail safety, to be published that day, would not make happy reading for Mr Joyce or his board.

Before most people had even got into their baths a man who said he had quit over ministerial interference was being portrayed as a man who quit in the face of imminent criticism over rail safety. Or, as Ms O'Rourke described him cuttingly on radio less than an hour later, the man who "couldn't face the music".

Ms O'Rourke's political antennae are among the finest in public life. She had spotted trouble very fast and soon had the media talking about rail safety rather than about the accusation by a resigning semi-state chairman that she interfered inappropriately in the running of the company.

In the Dail yesterday afternoon, she rejected a demand from Fine Gael's Mr Ivan Yates that she apologise to Mr Joyce for effectively suggesting he resigned because he was a coward who wouldn't face a ticking off from the Minister.

When it was published yesterday afternoon, the report on rail safety contained mixed news and little for a chairman to resign over. On the positive side, "a great deal has been done" by Iarnrod Eireann. "Many encouraging initiatives have been started." It refers to "the tremendous amount of activity on safety" and "significant awareness of the changes in safety culture required".

It says more must be done. Some risks already identified remain, while 11 new "unreasonable risks" have been identified. "Additional management controls" are necessary and some of the risks reported as having been eliminated had not, in fact, been fully dealt with.

It was very much a mixed review of work in progress, and not one on which Mr Joyce is likely to have considered quitting. However, Ms O'Rourke refused to withdraw her inference, let alone apologise. Mr Joyce had agreed on Monday to meet her yesterday morning to discuss the rail safety report. Yet, instead of meeting her, he had sprung this resignation on her. "What inference could one draw?" she asked rhetorically when challenged in the Dail.

Yesterday afternoon Mr Joyce was reported as having rejected Ms O'Rourke's inference. He repeated that his reasons for resignation were as stated in his resignation letter.

Ms O'Rourke's refusal to withdraw the inference that he was running away from a going-over in the Minister's office probably reflects her anger at having Mr Joyce's resignation sprung on her without notice, and seeing his reasons for resignation set out in The Irish Times before she had a chance to put her version out.

Ms O'Rourke's relationship with CIE has been difficult over the past three years. Board members and executives maintain they have been subjected to petty snubs, such as being made to wait in corridors and outside offices for meetings called by the Minister. More importantly, several agree with Mr Joyce's assessment that the Minister did not allow CIE the autonomy it needed to perform effectively.

Ms O'Rourke's stewardship of the semi-state company is informed by her political instincts and natural populism. She understands clearly the effects of various decisions on voters and interest groups, and often acts accordingly. Her critics say this often leads to pragmatic short-term decisions where long-term strategic ones are required.

So, for example, while Telecom has been privatised, Aer Lingus is set to be and Aer Rianta might be, Great Southern Hotels won't be. There is no national policy reason why the State should run hotels but not telecoms, an airline or airports.

However, local political reasons and the heavy unionisation of the hotels involved make privatisation a politically unattractive option.

These decisions are not Ms O'Rourke's alone and, indeed, the Minister's instincts reflect a more general Government tendency to allow commercial decisions to be influenced by short-term political considerations.

In the case of CIE, Mr Joyce's resignation letter accuses Ms O'Rourke of inappropriate involvement in its internal industrial relations affairs. Ms O'Rourke rejects the allegation.

However, in the Dail last month in relation to the Dublin Bus dispute, she said: "I have been in regular contact with management and the unions in Dublin Bus to ascertain if a basis can be found for negotiations that will lead to an early and satisfactory resolution of this dispute.

"I will continue these contacts and urge the parties to enter into urgent negotiations without preconditions on either side or the threat of industrial action, but with the interests of customers foremost in their minds."

Publicly urging a company management involved in a standoff with a trade union to drop preconditions would appear to most people to constitute getting involved in internal industrial relations matters.

Ms O'Rourke insists she was merely keeping in touch with what was going on. She suggested yesterday that in general her involvement did not amount to interference but "democratic steward ship".

The Opposition yesterday made much of the fact that Mr Joyce's resignation represents the loss of a fourth semi-state chairman or chief executive on Ms O'Rourke's watch. However, in at least two cases, the resignation had nothing to do with the individuals' relationship with the Minister.

More importantly, the issues raised by the resignation indicate that there is no clear Government view as to what semi-state companies are for, whether and why they should be retained or sold, and how autonomous their managements should be to conduct their affairs as they see fit.