From top: The ‘Civil Servants’ as depicted on RTÉ’s Irish Pictorial Weekly, from left: Tara Flynn, Barry Murphy, Colum McDonnell and John Colleary; Dan Boyle
Real political courage means taking on the invisible, unaccountable government.
Dan Boyle writes:
It’s never talked about. It isn’t meant to exist in a country that styles itself a republic, but whisper it, Ireland has a caste system. Elites who believe themselves to be, and know better than, most of the citizens of the country.
Recent years have seen a crumbling of the undue deference sub-elites had come to expect as their entitlement. Priest, politician and profiteer have lost their glitter as a Brave New World brought about by rapid economic change, in both directions, has made a real republic somewhat more likely.
The common factor in their demise was that these were the elites that engaged with the public. The elites that remain are those that have had to deal with the public least. Amongst such elites the highest echelons of the civil servants continue to reign.
Of course it is dangerous to generalise. I’ve known some excellent civil servants, some of whom were Secretary Generals of their departments. However, operating without any real accountability mechanisms, there exists in this caste an overbearing arrogance that without their say the country cannot exist.
Civil servants are meant to implement policy and be apart from the political process. In my experience of government I’ve seen examples of both principles being breached.
Take the area of local government ‘reform’, reducing and merging local authorities. This was never proposed by any political party. It was instigated and implemented within the Department of the Environment strictly for their own administrative convenience.
In Budget 2008 The Greens secured a measure designed to encourage greater use of public transport. This was to treat free parking, in designated city centres, as a benefit in kind on which a €200 annual charge would be made.
Despite being within the Finance Act of that year, Department of Finance officials were briefing journalists that the measure would never be implemented. Which it wasn’t as it would have impacted on them. Civil servants deliberately impeding legislation.
None of this was too surprising. The longer the political involvement the more cynical your world view becomes. Towards the end of that government I had an experience, which in its audaciousness, stunned even me.
We were preparing for the last budget. A budget that would be the worst of budgets in the worst of circumstances. We had succeeded in making previous budgets, all dismal in their own right, to be progressive. Having those with most paying most. We wanted to have as many compensating measures as we could in a budget we knew would be despised.
The meeting was on one side of table were the two Green Ministers, Donal Geoghean our programme manager and myself. Sat across were Brian Lenihan as Finance Minister, his Secretary General and his two most immediate lieutenants (both since promoted).
We were proposing refundable tax credits, at €100 a year, for the lowest paid workers who didn’t qualify for tax. Brian Lenihan was quite favourable to the proposal, but it seems the decision wasn’t his to make.
“We won’t do that” barked one of the officials, looking nowhere for approval of his opinion. Then the penny dropped. We had never been negotiating with Fianna Fáil. It was always with the civil service.
It will remain so, however future governments are composed, until senior civil servants are made understand the meaning of the word ‘serve‘. Of course for any politician to see through such a change they would be need to be ‘courageous’.