Ruling class average in all but vanity


Three things define our leaders: profligacy, lack of foresight and ludicrous salaries, writes PATSY McGARRY.

A COLLEAGUE recently told me I was depressed. Perhaps I am. We had been discussing this state of chassis that is Ireland. What had we achieved since 1922? We had exported our people in their hundreds of thousands, most of them semi-literate, with brief respite in the 1960s and the Celtic Tiger years.

We allowed control of health and education to a power-hungry Catholic Church whose congregations used tens of thousands of our children for their profit and pleasure. And then there were the banks, which piled cash at our feet, slithered to our sides, hissed in our ears “trust in me” and, when we did, ran off with the rest of our lives. Church, State, our financial houses, so many of our institutions. What a falling off.

My colleague wondered “what about neutrality?” I responded that, during the second World War we had allowed a petty parochialism fog the bigger picture in that epic struggle between fascism and democracy. The rest, I said, was geography and sham. It was then he told me I was depressed.

Possibly I am.

I love my country dearly but we have been so badly let down. Our ruling class, whether of church, State or in finance, etc, has rarely been more than mediocre since we got our independence but none of its membership through the decades has shown quite the same expertise at enriching itself as the current one.

Among it I include not just our politicians and members of the temporary government but the very many who make up the backbone of permanent governance in this State.

Their extraordinary vanity would be hilarious were it not so ludicrous, as illustrated through the inflated salaries and outrageous expenses they believe are their due, making us poor suckers the laughing stock of the developed world. This, despite their repeated profligacy and lack of foresight.

That this privileged class is aided and abetted by trade union leaders on six-figure salaries and with more directorships in their back pockets than they care to remember, simply heightens the farce in it all.

The hubris of our would-be betters reminds me of a character played by Peter O’Toole in a comedy itself titled The Ruling Class. In it O’Toole plays the 14th Earl of Gurney, who happens to believe he is God. Queried as to why, he offers the perfectly plausible explanation that whenever he prays he finds he is talking to himself.

Our ruling class showed similar self-belief throughout the Celtic Tiger era. That continues, despite so much evidence to the contrary. Just this week, for instance, the Department of Finance was shown once again to have got its projections for State income wrong. This is a skill perfected in the only way possible, through practice. The department got such practice throughout the Celtic Tiger period when its projections were wrong with a consistency which suggested genius. For this its officials were rewarded with ever-increasing salaries and generous bonuses.

Our ruling class must be brought to book if the people of this State are to accept the pain necessary to get us all out of this awful mess. It must be seen to shed its vanity and lead by example. Colm McCarthy has shown how, in sections of his report which have attracted far too little attention.

He recommended that 17,000 public servants should go, and I would suggest that as many as practicable of these come from the “Sir and Lady Humphrey” level. A new income tax band for all on more than €150,000 a year should take care of the rest, including the judiciary and their “because we’re worth it” attitude. Further, no sitting TD should be allowed draw a pension of any sort until he or she retires.

McCarthy proposed that local authorities and VEC numbers be reduced to 22 across the State. Who needs town commissions and all those county/city councillors with their hefty expenses? Who needs the Seanad? It costs €25 million a year. For what? All its decisions can be overturned by the Dáil and its tiny electorate of some graduates and all county councillors make it elitist and undemocratic. As McCarthy pointed out, fellow EU states such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden can survive without its equivalent. So can we.

We don’t need 166 TDs. Scotland, with a population larger than our own, has 129 members of its parliament. Do we even need that number? There is no doubt that any government which went to the country seeking to change the Constitution to reduce the overall number of TDs to, say, 100, would have no problem getting that through.

After all the USA, which is somewhat larger than us, has just 100 senators, two for each state. Fine, it has 435 members of the House of Representatives – for a population of 307 million. Colm McCarthy’s proposed 22 local authorities could fill that role here.

One State institution looked at and which escaped any recommended cuts by McCarthy was the presidency. It didn’t surprise me. In February 2008 I reported on President Mary McAleese’s state visit to Germany, accompanying her there and back. She flew by a scheduled Aer Lingus flight to Berlin and returned by scheduled Aer Lingus flight from Frankfurt. The only concession to her status was that she sat in seat 1A.

On that trip a senior German official familiar with Ireland, who was contemptuous of our ruling class, pronounced her “fantastic”. She is and I didn’t even vote for her. Maybe I am depressed.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times