Cronyism is at the heart of Irish society

Opinion: Is there an Irish person who has never sniffed cronyism while job-seeking?

As the offspring of a rural TD fadó fadó, when home was synonymous with office, we often made the tea and took notes when constituents called in our father’s absence. They trusted us because we were family and we were diligent, sensitive little helpers, available at odd hours and weekends and instinctively discreet about the intimate concerns of our callers (many of whom had limited literacy). You didn’t have to be family to be all that, but it helped.

Once paid staff became available to politicians, the situation had to change. Public money was involved. But it was never clear to me why the employment of family members in these situations was automatically suspect. Sometimes it makes sense to appoint someone well known to you, someone you know to be unshakeably trustworthy, who will go the extra mile or work ridiculous hours because of the nature of the relationship.

Such political “clinics” should probably be defunct anyway in a world where constituents can avail of Citizens Information Centres or Google. Don’t people know their TDs’/Senators’/county councillors’ “pull” is almost entirely imaginary anyway? But – can they be sure?

There is an interesting dynamic at play here. Most Irish voters continue to elect politicians on the basis of them being “good constituency workers” – whatever that means. At the same time, a 2014 European Commission survey on corruption suggests that four out of five Irish people also believe that corruption is endemic and only a quarter believe efforts to eradicate it are working.

Who are these people?

Who are all those corrupt politicians? What is the basis for this catastrophic perception of politics, when this State has legislation on political funding, meritocracy in the civil service and so on, that many countries would give their right arm for, as Dr Elaine Byrne puts it? The real problem, she suggests, is that people see no consequences for corrupt or unethical behaviour. This is patently true. But perhaps we need to be a little more nuanced.

Cronyism – defined as “the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their credentials” – is not the same as corruption, defined as “having or showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain”.

It is important because politicians do not exist in isolation from society. How many people have never sought special consideration from a politician or a “contact” for example? When it works for them, it’s called having a “good constituency worker”. When it works for someone else, it’s called cronyism.

Amid the shocking allegations and controversies surrounding the Garda, for example, it’s worth remembering – as Conor Brady writes in his new history of the force – that “a police force is almost always a mirror image of society’s prevailing values”.

Is there an Irish person who has never sniffed cronyism while job-seeking? Take Matt, a popular junior employee in cronys4ireland (fictional names, clearly). Cronys4ireland has a director whose father-in-law sits as an “independent” member on the interview panel for a widely-respected Irish organisation with a plum vacancy. Out of almost 200 applicants, Matt lands the plum.

Is this (true) story a case of a decent young man getting preference because his credentials and work ethic were already well known to an appreciative panel? But Matt works in a niche sector in a tiny city in a tiny country. What are the chances that his CV was genuinely head and shoulders above the others?

Accusations

Conor Lenihan, a former minister, wrote a column in the

Sunday Business Post

about being at the sharp end of the “most ridiculous”, “manic” campaigns by solicitors for preferment for judicial appointments. On two out of the three occasions that he formally supported individuals, he was successful – “

and I knew the people concerned to be worthy people

” (my italics), he added. But how can we tell?

He argues that “in a small and connected society ... it is almost inevitable that no matter who is appointed to a State position, there are accusations or insinuations that influence was used . . .” True – and a manifestly unfair situation for those civic-minded appointees of real integrity and talent.

Last week, I suggested here that the blindingly independent-minded Irish Fiscal Advisory Council might be a template for a new Seanad. A letter-writer questioned this, noting IFAC members were appointed by the Minister for Finance, without oversight. True again. But who in political terms, is the immaculately conceived creature who gets to appoint the overseers?

Can such matters ever be settled beyond suspicion? A start can be made where it matters most: in politics. It will happen when we elect politicians with a mandate to impose immediate, painful and lasting sanctions on peers who engage in ethical breaches or corruption. But first, society needs to do some serious work on itself.