When Fianna Fail senator Ned O’Sullivan rose to speak in the brief Seanad debate on the appointment of John McNulty to the board of Imma on Tuesday, he seemed caught between admiration and horror.
"We are all politicians and we know how it works", he began – an acknowledgment that his own party are the past masters of strokes and fast ones. But, he added, "this one seems to be particularly crude". What he seemed to be suggesting was that, if Fianna Fáil was pulling a stroke, it wouldn't do so quite so nakedly or so shamelessly. It was, perhaps, a back-handed compliment to Fine Gael – the contenders have now taken the title from the long-time champions of political shenanigans.
The brazenness involved in the appointment of Mr McNulty to Imma has three layers. Firstly, transparency in public appointments was a flagship policy of the “new politics” that Fine Gael promised us. Not only was the process to be opened up, but “A Fine Gael Government will introduce a Public Appointments Transparency Bill that will require the relevant Dáil committees to vet all ministerial appointments made to State boards, agencies and regulators.” The cynical ditching of these promises may not be entirely surprising but the sheer extent to which the old politics has been given new life is nonetheless remarkable.
Secondly, the abuse of the process of public appointment is much more extreme than the old habit of rewarding party activists with positions on prestigious boards. Whatever Mr McNulty’s qualifications for the Imma board – and they seem negligible - they are utterly irrelevant. He was never going to serve on the IMMA board in any meaningful way, since he would have had to resign on election to the Seanad anyway.
And, as we discovered from his resignation statement today, “Imma’s internal rules, preclude me from being a board member and contesting an election at the same time”. The board appointment was a charade from the start – intended merely to get him over the hump of qualification to run for election on the cultural and educational panel.
One of the most important national cultural institutions was merely being used as a temporary car park for a convenient political vehicle. The open contempt for that institution is quite staggering. But there is also in all of this a contempt for the general principles of institutional governance.
Public boards are just political playthings. What message does that send out to civic-minded people with real skills that could and should be used on State boards for the public interest?
Thirdly, and perhaps most seriously, there is an open and brazen defiance of any democratic or parliamentary accountability. Heather Humphrey’s speech to the Seanad on the issue was cringe-making – she merely read a hastily-assembled statement, much of it taken directly from Imma’s website and Wikipedia, describing what Imma does. She entirely refused to answer the questions she was summoned to the Seanad to answer.
These questions were put clearly and succinctly by Fidelma Healy-Eames and Fiach MacConghail: Was she aware, or unaware, at the time she made this appointment that Mr McNulty was going to be a Seanad candidate? If she was aware then why appoint someone who would have to stand down once elected? When did the Government decide to extend the number of members of the Imma board from nine to 11? (Sheila O’Regan was appointed at the same time as John McNulty.) Did the minister have a formal meeting with the chairman and the director of Imma regarding the skill sets required on the board?
Heather Humphreys completely refused to answer any of these questions in parliament – and has maintained that refusal ever since. It is not even clear who really took the decision to appoint Mr McNulty – the Taoiseach claims that Ms Humphreys took the decision on her own; many even in Fine Gael find this hard to believe.
But a stone wall has been erected. The most basic kind of accountability – a minister answering questions in parliament –has been simply ditched.
There is not even a pretence that parliamentary democracy has to be taken seriously. If the specific issue here may seem small to many people, the implications of its handling are very large: Ministers can use public appointments for party purposes without having to answer to anyone. The old Fianna Fáil may well have believed that but it would have been reluctant to make it so obvious.