From top: Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left) and former Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan; Eamonn Kelly
There was a story in the Indo after Christmas about councillors working from home but still claiming mileage expenses. Presumably they’re putting in strong mileage trundling in their pyjamas from the kettle to the laptop.
The point is though, that if the story is true – and I’ve no reason to doubt it, it appears after all in the anointed mainstream press – is that in order for such claims to go through they must be processed by a bureaucracy, whose agents must surely be aware that the claimants are working from home.
If this is the case it makes the whole thing seem like an official scam to siphon off public funds under a false pretext.
However, the defence claims that there is an allowance of mileage which can be claimed without receipts and that this is the money that the story is referring to. I can see how that might be the case. There is often that spectacle of departments being allotted a budget and finding themselves with surplus near the end of the budgetary period leaving them with the option of either using it or losing it.
But it doesn’t read well in a news context which also carries stories of underpaid medical staff and three homeless people dying in the last nine days, among the usual stories of want and neglect. In that context the claimed mileage story screams perks, mismanagement and waste.
In a sense it’s just another example really of “flexible” Irish laws. The comedian Dara O’Brien described this flexibility in a three-step application of the law. There are things that are “Fine”, there are things that are “Kind of okay”, and then there’s “Ah, now you’re tearing the hole out of it.”
The mileage claims for stay-at-home officials on Zoom calls seems to belong in the tearing the hole out of it category. But the situation also begs the question, Do Ireland’s flexible laws become even more flexible the further up you move on the social scale? It certainly often seems that way.
A few weeks ago The Examiner published a story saying that “several public officials, including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, are to be investigated for allegedly failing to protect a whistle-blower, now retired prison officer Noel McGree, after he made a protected disclosure.”
The Examiner story is necessarily technical in its description of the unfolding story, opening with, “The Public Accounts Committee has agreed to recommend to justice minister Helen McEntee that she launch an external investigation into the standards of financial account-keeping at the Irish Prison Service.” The story continuing in that relatively bloodless manner.
But over on the Echo Chamber Podcast on the website Tortoise Hack, the presenters Tony Groves and Martin McMahon spoke directly to Noel McGree and the human aspect of the story came out in all its shuddering glory.
Shooting the Messenger
Apparently, McGree felt encouraged by Leo Varadkar’s attitude towards whistle-blowers in comments Varadkar made following the Maurice McCabe affair.
But when McGree acted on what the Examiner describes as “issues surrounding catering procurement within the Prison Service” and an allegation that the Irish Prison Service (IPS) had been “penalising or discriminating against whistle-blowers…” the then Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan sent McGree’s complaint directly back to IPS management, the people McGree was complaining about.
The situation became even more complicated when McGree then sent the complaint direct to then taoiseach Varadkar, the very man who’d spoken up for whistle-blowers, along with a complaint against Charlie Flanagan for having sent the initial report back to the IPS, making McGree a target.
So, what did Taoiseach Varadkar do when contacted by an actual whistle-blower? According to McGree on the Echo-chamber podcast, the then taoiseach sent his file, a “protected disclosure” back to the IPS, and the complaint against Charlie Flanagan to Charlie Flanagan, allegedly breaking confidentiality and failing to protect a whistle-blower.
Noel McGree claims he was subsequently forced into early retirement, from where he watched with interest as the Dáil gathered to vote on a no-confidence bill against Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on the question of the sharing of confidential documents, the very act that had cost Noel McGree his position and had caused such trouble and heartache to his family.
He watched with a sinking heart as the Dáil voted confidence in the Tanáiste, desperately papering over the cracks of an increasingly creaky crony system, sanctioning at government level a system of “flexibility” that serves some and makes collateral damage of others.
But Ireland has a profound problem with whistle-blowers anyway, and there is little public sympathy for them. The very idea of a whistle-blower, given Ireland’s largely unexamined post-colonial trauma, is complicated by the implicit suggestion that someone reporting to the authorities is by definition a “snitch” or “informer”.
This is very dodgy territory for Irish people to get their heads around. So whistle-blowers tend to be regarded with suspicion and are more likely to end up being the losers in situations of Irish legal “flexibility”.
Politically, it is wiser in such a system, to condemn the whistle-blower. Otherwise, you have to condemn the system of “flexibility” that produced the whistle-blower. This is arguably the same dilemma that the shaky coalition government had to contend with in the Varadkar no-confidence vote.
There is a kind of shared experience among whistle-blowers. They appear to act when their own moral standards are expected to be “modified”, let’s say, to facilitate a desired legal “flexibility” by management.
In other words, they find themselves placed in a position to become complicit in what they perceive as illegal activity – and in what is often actually illegal activity – leaving the whistle-blower no option but to report on the situation, with all the risks that this entails. This dilemma is typical of many whistle-blowers in the Irish context, a place where honesty is often not the best policy.
Councillors claiming mileage for sitting at their home computers may be more than some weird bureaucratic quirk, an isolated incident of tearing the hole out of it. It may be a fractal of a wider system of institutionalised “flexibility” that appears to be punitively tight at the lower end of the social scale and extremely relaxed at the top.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet