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Bloodbath in the Boardroom

Posted on: May 1st, 2011

NOT all beards bring bad news. Normally the bushier the beard, the greater the threat of its bearer to the economy. So Siptu’s Jack O’Connor looks marginally more menacing to Ireland’s fragile finances than ICTU’s David Begg.

The sight of a Jack O’C-type beard taking over at the Health quagmire sent those of us with whiskerphobia heading for the hills. What would the new whiskered one do with his big budget?

Minister for Health Dr James Reilly sports a spectacular specimen. No one in the Dail matches his facial fuzz.

Last week he betrayed the bearded brotherhood.

Mr Reilly stormed the Health Service Executive’s Adelaide Road fortress and demanded heads on plates. It was time that the board stepped down. Quangos seemed open season.

Let us raise a tentative glass to Mr Reilly. His coup d’etat could conceivably be the forerunner of a clean-out of state boards. Alternatively, he could merely be pulling a staggering publicity stunt.

The press was alerted well in advance of his spectacular. The Minister could not be kept off the airwaves all day on Thursday, as he milked the media attention that his bloodletting was attracting.

The coming months will reveal whether his move was window-dressing or real reform.

After the meeting with the directors, the Minister was at pains to grovel when they agreed to hand in their P45s. He was grateful to them for their service and lavished praise on them, even referring to their “excellence”.

Such plaudits seemed paradoxical at a moment when he was showing them the door. He painted the event as part of the “change agenda” in the health service.

Perhaps, but state boards are stuffed with well-connected creatures. The HSE is no exception.

When he was waving goodbye to the directors, Mr Reilly was far too polite to utter a word of criticism. Nor did he point out that the departing HSE board members included a former Fianna Fail general- secretary; the wife of one of Brian Cowen’s one-time special advisers in Finance; the spouse of a prominent Progressive Democrat minister; and a pal of Mr Cowen’s who also happens to be the top dog at Arthur Cox — a favourite law firm of the last government. Other casualties of the exodus include the present chairman of An Post (on a 30 grand fee), currently double- jobbing as a director of the Grangegorman Development Agency. Veterans of the boardroom circuit sometimes landed on the HSE top table. Each HSE director receives €15,000 a year. The HSE chairman, who is staying on, receives €30,000.

All sounds a bit familiar?

Perhaps Mr Reilly is sending them packing because they are relics of the old regime. Or is he really pushing this purge as part of his programme for “paving the way for reform”?

Let us pray that the move marks the beginning of a proper purge. We badly need blood in the boardrooms. Not just at the HSE , but everywhere else.

Bold as Mr Reilly’s move is, it begs a question: if he can so easily force the longer-serving HSE directors to resign, then why has the Government been unable to reverse those more outrageous appointments made by Fianna Fail in its dying days in office?

The list of last-minute appointees was rescued by advice from the Attorney-General, who saved their skins. Ministers are now pleading “legal reasons” for leaving the nominees of exiting Fianna Fail ministers in place.

Apparently letters from Transport Minister Leo Varadkar demanding resignations from the Fianna Fail loyalists favoured with eleventh-hour gigs on quangos have been met with silence.

The soldiers of destiny are staying put. They eyeballed the Taoiseach. His Government has blinked.

Conflicting signals are emerging. The rhetoric suggests that reform of the quangos is on the agenda; Mr Reilly’s dramatic move supports the prospects of change.

Other straws in the wind are encouraging. Advertisements for candidates for bank boards and CIE directors are being flagged by government spinners as heralding a break with the past.

But do they?

There appears to be a two- tier approach to state appointments. The Reilly/Varadkar way, and the old way. Which way is winning?

Two weeks ago, the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney pulled a familiar stroke. A Fine Gael loyalist landed a plum job as chairman of Bord na gCon.

The announcement from the Department of Agriculture carried all the usual guff. Simon told the press that Philip Meaney was “eminently well-qualified for this appointment, given both his business background and his involvement in the greyhound industry over a period of 25 years”.

He went on to praise Mr Meaney’s experience etc.

What Mr Coveney did not spell out was that Mr Meaney was the architect of Fine Gael’s successful three- seat strategy in Carlow Kilkenny at the General Election. Indeed, he told the Examiner newspaper that Mr Meaney’s “Fine Gael connections were not a factor”.

The Government was in one hell of a hurry to appoint Mr Meaney to the top Bord na gCon job. Mr Coveney even admitted to having been politically lobbied, but insisted that was not a factor. Ahem…

Indeed one of the successful Fine Gael Carlow TDs, Pat Deering, conceded that he had lobbied on behalf of Mr Meaney. Ahem…

Old-style politics were alive and well, despite the Government’s protestations that there would be an end to the system of state appointments.

Almost simultaneously a story broke about the award of a €200,000 public relations contract to a spinning outfit connected to Fine Gael.

Fleishman Hillard Saunders, public relations consultants, won an €80,000-a-year gig to massage the message of the most extravagant semi-state of them all. The FAS monster was back in the headlines. As if the Fine Gael connection was not bad enough, the idea that the new Government would ratify a contract — any contract — to spin for FAS is mind-boggling.

FAS, the state body whose name is synonymous with the spendthrift culture of the Celtic Tiger, has its own well-paid permanent public relations unit.

Admittedly the internal team has not delivered a very positive message in recent years, but that hardly justifies splashing out another two grand a week to an outside firm with Fine Gael connections. The FAS decision even embarrassed Mr Reilly’s Cabinet colleague, the more modestly bearded Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, who dismissed the contract as a pre-election award. Mr Quinn is right, but it will be a post-election payment while all the work agreed is due to be done in the future.

Mr Quinn should cancel the contract. There is no justification for FAS spending a red cent on spinners. The FAS budget should be slashed, not enlarged.

If Mr Quinn cancels the FAS contract with Fleishman and Mr Reilly delivers on his promise to follow the removal of the HSE board with real action on the health service itself, some of us will have to rethink our prejudices about the dangers of indulging powerful men with beards.

Otherwise the jury will be forced to remain out on whether we are witnessing a piece of classic political grandstanding or a new dawn.