Yes Minister, it's a tough job but someone's got to do it


DÁIL SKETCH:IT IS not easy being an imported Sir Humphrey in the corridors of power these days, the Dáil has been assured.

Appointed from outside the ranks of the Civil Service to advise the Taoiseach and his Ministers, the task apparently demands a heavy workload, no long-term job security and the glare of publicity.

That was how Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin summed up the lot of the special advisers hired by the Government, some of them receiving in excess of the Government’s salary guideline of €92,672.

The Minister was challenged on the issue by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, who named four of the imported Sir Humphrey: Mark Kennelly and Andrew McDowell advising Enda Kenny, and Mark Garrett and Colm O’Reardon who have the ear of Eamon Gilmore.

They were being paid almost double the Government’s recommended salary level, said McDonald. “These guys are on big bucks,” she added.

Howlin agreed they were on “good wages”. He painted a picture of special advisers very different from the Yes Minister-type portrayed in the television series, with Sir Humphrey sitting in palatial offices and constantly attempting to hoodwink their political boss. Special advisers played a unique role as a sounding board, said Howlin, adding that most of them came at a reduced cost.

Their contracts were for no more than five years. “We also ask them to work all the hours God sends and have their names published in national newspapers and mentioned in parliament.”

He pointed out that McDonald’s party colleague, the North’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, currently on leave and offering to do the job of president for the average industrial wage, had three personal advisers.

An unimpressed McDonald cast a sideways glance at the Fianna Fáil benches. “I wonder about the quality of the advice given by special advisers in previous administrations,” she said.

Fianna Fáil greeted the remark with silence. Howlin said he would prefer to defend a salary scale that most people found difficult to accept than make a wrong set of decisions that would ruin the State and cost millions or even billions.

Fianna Fáil kept its collective head down.

When McDonald wondered if any of those referred to were party people, Leas Cheann Comhairle Michael Kitt had called time on her questions. “I will ask that question again,” she said.

As Fianna Fáil recovered its voice, party leader Micheál Martin estimated that €1 million was spent by the Taoiseach, Ministers and Ministers of State on constituency work so far. He questioned the Taoiseach’s sincerity.

It was all too much for Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte.

“Deputy Martin was in power for 15 years with a gilly carrying around his briefcase,” said Rabbitte. “He now comes in here with his Francis of Assisi face.”

Anticipating the publication today of the Keane report, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins thought it absurd that the banks would be dealing with people who had distressed mortgages, having caused the problem for them in the first place. “It is like sending a bunch of marauding foxes that had raided a henhouse back to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their previous victims.”

It was not the kind of metaphor, one presumes, used by Sir Humphrey when advising Ministers.