Party loyalists, Ministers, State boards and working the system

‘We’ll give you a State board, maybe a prison visiting committee . . . if you come on side,’ said the minister


The minister paced the corridors of power as a civil servant waited patiently to brief him on urgent Dáil business.

He was on his mobile phone to a constituency activist who was raising questions about the influence of party headquarters on the selection of local election candidates.

The Celtic Tiger was roaring, the State’s coffers full, and there was much political patronage to hand out.

“We will give you a State board, maybe a prison visiting committee, or something else, if you come on side,’’ said the minister.

The civil servant pretended not to hear.

Such perks were once the stuff of political legend, sometimes used to placate the politically disappointed or, more frequently, as a reward from a minister for a constituency loyalist.

“All parties in power did it since the foundation of the State,’’ a former minister told The Irish Times. “You criticised the practice in opposition but used it to the maximum allowable in government.’’

Anecdotes abound, but no former ministers were prepared to go on the record about how they worked the system. Some talked privately.

One recalled the case of the disappointed councillors who threatened mutiny when a parachuted candidate got a general election nomination over them.

They were assured by the then taoiseach, through an intermediary, they would be appointed to prison visiting committees if they toed the party line.

A senior minister in a coalition government appointed a close associate of a constituency rival to a State board to poach some of the local vote. Not to be outdone, his rival secured a State board place for another constituency activist after lobbying a sympathetic minister from his own party.

It sometimes went to the highest level. The Irish Times political editor Stephen Collins, in his book The Cosgrave Legacy, notes how a Fine Gael taoiseach in the 1970s, Liam Cosgrave, never forgot he was also TD for Dun Laoghaire.

“Cosgrave believed in using the levers of power that were available to him and when it came to the employment of porters and other staff which are under the direct political patronage of the Taoiseach of the day, or appointees to State boards, Dún Laoghaire came first followed by Fine Gael,’’ writes Collins.

A long retired Fianna Fáil minister recalled how he observed Jack Lynch and Charlie Haughey carefully nursing their respective Cork and Dublin constituencies through the use of political patronage.

Sometimes an appointment to a State board or prison visiting committee was insufficient to deal with the local political problem at hand.

As taoiseach in the 1980s, Haughey wanted a young solicitor, John O’Donoghue, to stand aside and make way for the then trainer of the Kerry football team, Mick O’Dwyer, to secure a Fianna Fail nomination with the aim of winning a second seat in the then Kerry South constituency.

A junior minister sent by Haughey promised O’Donoghue he would be made a district judge if he abandoned his political ambitions. O’Donoghue refused and went on to win a Dáil seat and serve as a minister and ceann comhairle.

The last government found itself in huge controversy when John McNulty was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) to boost his chances as the Fine Gael candidate in a Seanad byelection to the Cultural and Educational panel.

The move backfired, cost Fine Gael the seat, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted at the time it “was not his finest hour’’.

Although some Leinster House observers insist a minister can still secure a perk for “one of our own’’, matters are much more complicated since the last government set up the Public Appointments Service (Pas) which advertises state board vacancies on its website.

After an assessment, a shortlist is sent to the relevant minister for a final decision.

“The good old days, when the minister had absolute discretion, are over, but you can still sometimes manage to secure the job for a supporter if you really want to, ‘’ said a serving Minister.

“Ministers are very careful, lest it all go wrong for them, and some are just not interested any more.’’

A survey last year of 77 State board directors, published by the Institute of Directors (IoD) revealed 70 per cent said the appointments’ process was “fair and transparent’’ compared with just 26 per cent who thought so in 2012.

The Government has appointed 99 people, chosen from 588 applicants, to 22 boards since taking office last May. Names have been sent to relevant ministers to fill vacancies on nine boards.

“We are happy with the number and calibre of applications we are receiving for all advertised posts,’’ said a Pas spokeswoman.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has approved a four-category fee scale, based on the size of the company or agency involved.

Category one allows for a fee of €29,888 for a chairperson and €14,963 for a member; category two, €20,520 and €11,970; category three, €11,970 and €7,695; category four, €8,978 and €5,985.

Travel involving the use of the board member’s car carries a mileage rate of close on 40 cent per kilometre upwards.

Membership of some boards, such as the National Concert Hall, the National Museum of Ireland and the Heritage Council, under the Department of Arts, carry no fee.

Comdt Zdenek Osecky, who was appointed to the Army Pensions Board by Minister of State Paul Kehoe, receives no fee.

Under the legislation, the minister has power to make appointments, “other than strictly in accordance with the process’’, of “highly qualified’’ individuals.

The then tánaiste Joan Burton invoked this clause in the dying days of the last government when she appointed former Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) general secretary David Begg as chairman of the Pensions Authority.

Although Begg was well qualified, it did not stop the Opposition feigning outrage and the Independent Alliance moved a motion of no confidence in Burton. Politics took precedence over common sense.

“We all learned from that,’’ said a current Minister. “You won’t find any of us bypassing the full procedures.’’

Prison visiting committees, appointed by the minister for justice under legislation dating back to the early years of the State, were once seen as a major source of political patronage.

It was more than a coincidence when party activists found themselves visiting prisons long distances from where they lived so as to avail of lucrative travelling expenses.

Those days are no more. Members now receive a taxable payment of €142.50 per visit and vouched travel expenses of up to €30.

There are between six and 12 members on each of the State’s 14 prison visiting committees, with the Dochas Centre having a maximum of seven.

They are appointed for up to three years, at which point they can be reappointed or replaced by new members.

According to the Department of Justice, they meet monthly at the prison to which they are appointed and focus on issues such as the quality of accommodation, catering, medical, educational, welfare and recreational facilities.

Members of the public can apply or be nominated by a third party.

“There is no special application form and there is no qualifying examination but appointees are required to be of good character and they are usually well established in the local community,’’ said the department.

“Applicants are subject to a Garda vetting process.’’