The Naked Civil Servant And The Emperor’s New Clothes



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’.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle

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74 thoughts on “The Naked Civil Servant And The Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. Neilo

    Sorry, Dan, but that’s offside: many, if not all, of these parking spaces are shared among a number of civil servants on a f”irst come, first served’ basis, so you know right well it would be impossible to assess benefit-in-kind liability. Agree with you about the senior management cadre though – they’ve forgotten the service element of the job title.

  2. Clampers Outside!

    “without any real accountability mechanisms” – how can anyone say anyone is “good” at their job without accountability.

    Until there is some accountability, not one single civil servant can be said to be good at any aspect of their job because there is no measure if there is no accountability. This is particularly so for the scum at the top.

    Look at the failures of that muppet John Tierney, yet he is continually given big projects he’s clearly not capable of managing properly.
    Then there’s the complete lack of accountability between Ministers and their respective heads of dept in civil service. The lack of accountability is built in between them so that no one need take responsibility for anything. Phil Hogan and the IW fiasco is a case in point. He swanned back from his big job in Europe and when questioned on IW he said ‘nothing to do with me’ because he can…. because there’s no accountability.

    Add to that, there needs to be a way of punishing those who abuse positions. There are not enough real penalties (loss of pension) for white collar crime in the civil / public service. That penalty – loss of pension – is the only REAL punishment the scum will understand.

    Maybe then, we can get a civil service and politicians with some integrity. A word none of the current lot, or the last lot, even know the meaning of.

    1. phil

      My dad once told me, at one time the Snr Civil Servants were people to be trusted, in an Ireland where there were little opportunities during the 60’s & 70’s thats where all the best and brightest ended up , he told me governments came and went , some of those governments were quite worrisome, but the civil servants could be trusted to keep those short lived governments from doing anything too crazy .

      Its probably not like that anymore , they are us and we are them, and we have become very greedy and divorced from each other

      1. :-Joe

        You’re right , most civil servants are just average people and represent the best and worst of the population in general.

        It’s true that they make most of the decisions related to running the country and more often than not they have done more good than bad.

        The crazy thing is nobody apart from them knows what they are doing exactly. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually better this way but no, it’s just a blip… I know transparency is definitely the major problem here as with most other systems swamped with human dysfunction.


          1. :-Joe

            I think you’ll find most people are trying to do good but they are in a system where a small minority of people with most of the power and the system itself that lacks accountability encourages corrupt practices.

            The nature of abuse, cheating, corruption of power in any system basically boils down to the fact that if you can get away with it or there is a loop hole it will be exploited and taken advantage of eventually.

            After that you have the added burden of problems dealing with the random number of socio / psychopathic or morally / mentally ill that maybe involved in the situation.

            Every successful organised system needs pro-active on-going repeated rigorous examination, reform, improvement, transparency and accountability and even then your going to have a guaranteed small percentage of problems and failures.

            If even 5-10% failure was accepted as normal in an ideal system I can only imagine how bad the level of failure really is in the government.


          2. :-Joe

            “The fact that there is no accountability means we don’t know in fairness.”

            Exactly…. we can’t be sure until we have it and real transparency between government and the public but that means a huge loss of power and control for the elitist scum-bags like [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] just to name a few.


    2. Cian

      ” Then there’s the complete lack of accountability between Ministers and their respective heads of dept in civil service. The lack of accountability is built in between them so that no one need take responsibility for anything. Phil Hogan and the IW fiasco is a case in point. He swanned back from his big job in Europe and when questioned on IW he said ‘nothing to do with me’ because he can…. because there’s no accountability.”

      This was explicitly in both the Labour party manifesto, and, iirc, the Labour party program for government.

      Seems to have disappeared since then though. Odd, since it wouldn’t have cost any money to implement…

  3. John

    It must be class to have a job where you can ignore your boss, where actively working against him means you get promoted and he gets fired.

    Politicians get blamed, but why do ideas persist government after government? How is it that any cuts are targeted at front line services? Your fabled nurse or garda? Why are medical facilities stuffed full of permanent administrators whilst the nurses are temporary agency or brought in from abroad? Why are colleges and universities stuffed full of permanent administration and the teaching staffs are temporary contractors?

    Why do we persistently focus hundreds and thousands of permanent civil servants at the unemployed? Are they likely to bankrupt the country? Why not re-focus those resources to the real risk (proven time and again!) and beef up the director of corporate enforcement and financial regulator?

  4. :-Joe

    I agree with the previous comments but if people keep voting for candidates who don’t have any real plan for political reform then you are equally responsible for having more of the same. People also have to engage and get involved in politics more on some level beyond the ballot box too.

    Pick a single issue however big or small and organise a local group of people who agree together and lobby / rally / protest all the way up the chain until you get some satisfaction. If you can’t really be bothered at least try NOT to support, empower or comply with the same people, policies and problems that are giving us the same results with very little slow progressive change.

    How do you eat an elephant,?… -Little by little, bit by bit… :-J

      1. :-Joe

        Do you see where you went wrong?..

        I can remember all the main parties promising the same core set of carrots over the last 20 years and beyond.

        Never once delivered on their carrots, chocolate treats or those spongy cream cakes.


      2. classter

        To be fair, FG provided no specifics of what sort of genuine reform they would enact.
        So they fall right into the category of ‘candidates who don’t have any real plan for political reform’.

        The Seanad being a perfect example. The reform to be implemented (ABOLISH IT) seemed to stem simply from a whim of Kenny’s

        1. Clampers Outside!

          I wouldn’t abolish it. I would like it reformed.

          For instance, Maria Cahill is nominated by Labour for what exactly? These type political appointments must be stopped. …that’s among many reforms needed. But I wouldn’t abolish it.

        2. ollie

          TO be fair Fine Gael were very clear about the reforms they said they would implement.
          Don’t use the seanad debacle as an excuse.

  5. scottser

    well fuk you, dan boyle. i’m a public servant and i work damn hard for my bi-weekly insult that pays for your 20k a year pension that you do sod all for. you are a hypocrite of the highest stamp. if you want to look critically at a caste system, then look no further than your party and coalition cronies.

    1. Dan Boyle

      You mean the pension scheme devised and instigated by higher level civil servants and benefitted by thousands of them?

      1. :-Joe

        Dan, why did you bother going into government with FF, surely deep down you must have known they were part of the auld establishment and were going to screw you from all angles if they needed a fall guy or just got bored screwing the public.

        I’m saying this from the point of view of being genuinely interested that there was something different and progressive on offer when the Green Party were going strong in the beginning which led to your election.

        It just seems like you were used and abused by the bhoys and left to ultimately implode like the rest of the small coalition parties in the last couple of decades.

        How, at the time did you not see this as your most probable fate, was it because of the old tried and trusted red herring of having to be in government and not opposition to affect real change?…

        I had high hopes for the Green Party, shame…


        1. Dan Boyle

          My answer will always be the same. The opportunity to be in government happens infrequently. Only in government can change be achieved. It’s rare that these circumstances can be controlled and it is always better to have tried.

          1. Everybody in Ireland


            Enjoyed article & agree with your point. But I do wonder:

            Why hold on to this story for years? Why keep names anonymous? How will things change when a leading member of a party in government (you) / the person sitting at the table at the time (you) / the person dismayed by the situation (you) can only write a relatively blunt article?

            What is there to be scared of? And if we can’t describe these individual occurrences in detail, how will we ever build momentum for change?


          2. Dan Boyle

            I wrote about it in more detail in my book ‘Without Power or Glory’. The other two people at that meeting are the current Secretary Generals at Finance and Public Expenditure.

          3. :-Joe

            So for the aspiring politicians amongst us, infrequent change is ok as long as you try?… It says a lot to me about the state of politics and I’d like to see that on a poster on Merrion St., at least it would be honest.

            Maybe this xmass I’ll go around telling all the kids that there is no santa claus it’s actually a marketing gimmick to get you to drink corporate, imperial, brown, fizzy sugary widdle from a tin can…and love every minute of it .. but wait that’s not the half of it, there’s even much worse…

            You can forget about electing politicians, once they get power they’re all incapable of basic democracy and representing the public in any fair, just and meaningful way.

            Sorry about that kids, you’re just gonna have to figure that one out for yourself too….


      2. Clampers Outside!

        But TDs could raise the pensionable age to that of the state. There’s no reason in the world – not one – why a politician or civil servant should get special treatment of an early pension. None.

        Any politician that does not work to raise the pensionable age to the state age is running a double standard, lacks integrity and only proves that they are not in it for the people but themselves.

        It is that simple. Charlie Haughey gave the early age when discussions about raising every body elses was going on. It’s disgusting that it has not been since raised again.

        Any politician or civil servant who speaks about state pensions while not also working to raise TD pensionable age is just a self serving cretin. It is that simple.

        1. Dan Boyle

          That has happened but only for those elected after 2005. I favour capping pensions for politicians and higher level civil servants at 50000 a year. My own payment is a net cost to the State of around 5000 a year.

          1. Clampers Outside!

            “That has happened but only for those elected after 2005”

            Thanks Dan, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard this.

            If you have a chance, could you let me know where I might find this info… a website name or a google search to do… I did have a look myself but I am not seeing anything except for us PRSI payees, no mention of civil servants or political pensions.

            Much appreciated,

        2. DubLoony

          I can think of one good reason, that put forward by Charlie Sheen on why he pays prostitutes, ” you pay them to go away”.

          If you have a youngish politician who takes some unpopular but necessary steps and is forced out, at least they will know they have a pension.
          If not, they will always be timid and like Lowry who needs the cash, stick around for decades longer than needed because they can’t get a job elsewhere.

          1. Clampers Outside!

            They’ll STILL get their due pension on retirement age, getting it early is an incentive to leave early.
            And politicians don’t “stick around”, their constituency keeps them around by voting for them.

            Ever known an ex-politician to be unemployed? Why should they have a special early pension to cushion them, why should they have you and I pay for their special privilege while they raise the age of the pension you and I actually paid for?
            The early pension to politicians is a privilege to those that are certainly the least in need of it.

            Here’s one for ya, Ivan Yates, 16 years a politician. Currently getting €70k+, it was around the €80k+ mark when he retired. He retired at 50.
            By the time he’s 66, and at retirement age, he’ll have received €1.2 Million in pension payments.

            Equivalent to his wages as a politician.

            It’s disgusting. And to recall…. he went on radio playing the poor mouth, some brass neck of presumed privilege from him. A despicable little man.

          2. Dan Boyle

            Yes. My involvement in politics has made it difficult to get secure employment. I’ve kept myself busy but I haven’t been remunerated. I’m in no network or part of any golden circle.

    2. :-Joe

      Ok but would you agree that there’s not enough transparency for the public and a better system of checks and balances within the civil service?…

      I know the same could be said about almost any organisation and the system facilitates this blame game being played out over and over again repeatedly with every government I can remember.

      My problem with politics is not the civil service alone, it’s that I really don’t remember any radical reform in this area in years. Maybe I’m just oblivious to recent changes…?


    3. FreshFish

      Not to defend but he was referring more to the higher cadre of civil servant not to some jobsworth like you Scottser

    1. Dan Boyle

      Thanks for pointing my ignorance of any of these bodies and your belief that effective accountability already exists.

  6. The People's Hero

    I’ve made this analogy before…. These ‘elite’ Civil Servants are the ‘man with the plan’…. The guys with with stockings over their heads and sawn off shotguns when robbing the bank….. The political class and those in government are simply the getaway drivers….

    MInisters will come and go…. It’s the Humphrey’s of the world that control the nation…..

  7. Rich

    Utter poo of the most alarming proportions.

    Politicians have consistently failed this State, and in my experience (I was a CIvil Servant for 8 years) the Political masters refuse to grasp their brief as Ministers / Minsiters of State. Their main achievement in “Accountability” is the Public Services Management Act which, in reality, is a way for a Minister to say “I am not responsible for my Department, it was the Civil Servants”.

    Green Ministers in particular went out and expressed their opinion on policy in a speech and then returned to their Departments as if they had just made a huge policy shift forward – all this being done having conducted no research, no consultations (including not with their partners in Government), not even considering whether their actions were Constitutional or legal.

    Most Ministers are disinterested when it comes to their role as Ministers, their consistant focus is what being a Minister does for their constituency and their chances of being reelected.

    There is absolute clarity in the law in this Country, Ministers are the controllers of their Departements and the Oireachtas controls the Money. If Ministers were interested enough they would be able to effect tremendous change within any Government Department, they are either not bright enought to realise that is the case, or don’t care enough to do something.

    Intersting how Dan did not even have the curiosity to ask the Civil Servant why he made the statement. Were their existing policy constraints? Was there advice on the matter? Was he just making it up as he was going along? We will never know because Dan didn’t have the competence to ask!

    Finally, the fact that a former politician doesn’t want to fix a highly disfunctional and almost powerless Local Government system says it all. Local Government is controlled by the Department of the Environment – which was once run by a Green Party Minister who had nearly 4 years to bring in real reform, what did he actually bring in terms of Local Govenment reform – NPPR was about it.

    1. Dan Boyle

      Poo really strengthens an argument, but you do make some points, through your disdain, that underline my argument.
      Many political advances were achieved by overriding the caution argument often overused by senior civil servants – a new Constitution; declaration of a Republic; secondary education.
      It was frustration at The Green Paper on local government and the anodyne way that was handled by civil servants that made me form these views.

      1. Rich

        Hi Dan.

        Sorry about the poo (I actually used a stronger word but Broadsheet cleaned it up), but I get really upset when I read over and over again your type of article.

        You may well be right about civil servants banjaxing legislation, but the main reason they can do this is because most Ministers lack the motivation to apply the attention to detail required. A case in point – you cannot “frustrate” a Green Paper, it is a more like a position paper/consultation process not draft legislation. A Green Paper is the beginning of the process not the end. If the Minister of the day cannot or does not work hard to defend the paper then there is ample opportunity for someone who is paying attention to gut it.

        If the Green Paper was gutted, then it was gutted because the Minister of the day allowed it to be gutted. He either didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t know what a Green Paper was or didn’t defend it sufficiently.

        1. Dan Boyle

          The Green Paper was anodyne. It was the draft White Paper that was never made public. I objected to its intent of greater centralisation rather than more local democracy. My piece may make you angry but that’s more than made by your being patronising on how we mere public representatives are unaware of procedures.

          1. Richard

            Quite frankly Dan, you are measured by your achievements, not by your aspersions, if it got to White Paper stage and you let it get buried then you fumbled the ball. You public servants not knowing or caring about how to get things done in the right way should wear your lack of impact as a badge of shame, you wear it in this article as a badge of honour.

            Instead of learning from your mistakes you whinge and wallow in self-pity. A Department properly overseen by its Minister, as envisaged by the Constitution, would find it difficult to resist change. Lemass and Whittaker showed this early on. But there have been plenty of other examples, Department of Transport in the 1990’s, the Companies Registration Office in the 2000s.

            Unfortunately for your argument one of the best run public entities operates without a line Minister, nonetheless the Revenue Commissioners shows that Government Bodies can be dynamic and effective.

            Your Party had 4 years to do something and you failed. You call my contribution patronising, it is not. It is howeve a truth that most public representatives do not want to hear because they are wedded to the clientist model.

            There are massive improvements available to be achieved with proper planning and structures in place. But time and time again we see a Minister cut the ribbon on a new wing that doesn’t get running for another 5 years because all the political arm of Government really cared about was the photo op.

            What is really patronising is a person who actually had their hands on the levers of power coming on here and trying to blame their failings on their subordinates.

            Try not to destroy the Welsh Greens the way you did this Country and what should have been the most important movement of this generation. It doesn’t really matter whether you wouldn’t or you couldn’t, what really matters is you didn’t!

            Enjoy Cardiff

  8. bisted

    ‘…Elites who believe themselves to be, and know better than, most of the citizens of the country ‘…don’t know any Sir Humphries that Dan seems to be sulking about but this is a great description for the members of the Seanad – past and present.

      1. J

        Would you accept then that both politicians and high level civil servants have all partly benefited from the lack of effective accountability measures? Everyone screeching “it wasn’t me milord “.

  9. Gero

    don’t understand why this man is being given any time on this website.
    he’s is partly responsible for the disaster that this country has become.

  10. Truth in the News

    The best solution is to fire civil servants they same way as we fired Dan Boyle
    Lets call it “Boyle’s Law”

  11. Dan Boyle

    Not only patronising Richard also pretty pathetic. I ruined neither the country nor the Green Party, both of which have a future. When you mature you’ll realuse that lufe evolves along a meandering path.

    1. Rich

      Dan, a little introspection wouldn’t go astray on your part. You were one of the leaders of this country when it went down the tubes, costing not just money, but lives, broken homes, and mental and physical health. You were one of your party’s negotiators for entry into Government.

      You personally have significant direct responsibility for what happened, you directly arranged an FF/GP Government and that Government wiped out the Green Party representation in 2011. You were Party Chairman at the time, a position at the core of power. But you don’t accept it. The sign of a lack of maturity if ever there was one.

  12. DoesAnyoneOnHereUseTheirRealName?

    I would like Dan to write about what the GP did achieve in Government. If you are looking for real reform the Planning Act which prevented local councillors from re-zoning land willy-nilly was actually an effective prevention of one of the factors that led to the property bubble. Amalgamating county and town councils is not reform – it is rearranging the furniture.

  13. Dan Boyle

    Get a life. I was not responsible for the circumstances that caused the economic crash. We responded in the correct way knowing there was a political price. I’m weary of the sanctimony of you and people like you. Inform yourself and stop beleiving in the cheap and easy answers.

  14. Sister Mercedes

    Why didn’t Dan speak up at the time, and tell the Civil Servants that it wasn’t their decision to make?

    The problem isn’t with the officials. The problem is with our weak-as-dishwater parliamentarians who are too terrified to speak up to out of control senior Public Servants and even more out of control superior court Judges who are increasingly exercising power over areas completely beyond their jurisdiction and constitutional competence.

    Unfortunately we have a generation of politicians who still live in a colonial mindset where they tip their caps to the people in the big house.

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