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Cronies Win Quangos a Reprieve

Posted on: November 20th, 2011

The quangos are dead. Long live the quangos. What a quango cull. Ireland’s semi-states will never be the same again. Irish politics has been transformed. There is even new blood in the judiciary. While FG and Labour puritans are cleaning up the semi-states, Fine Gael and Labour loyalists are simply cleaning up.

The old abuses have gone. New abuses have been invented. Fianna Fail political patronage is over. The squeaky-clean Coalition’s appointments to quangos will be made ‘on merit’. Business will benefit. There will be no more FAS scandals. CIE breaches of procurement are a relic of the past.

In recent weeks, I keep spotting the names of people whom I know personally landing on the boards of quangos.

The reformist regime has swept Bernard Allen on to the Sports Council.

Bernard is a nice guy, an ex-Minister for Sport, a former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and, totally coincidentally, a loyal supporter of Enda Kenny in the last leadership heave.

I knew Bernard when he was a TD. We travelled to Nicaragua together in the mid- Eighties as parliamentary observers. He was likeable, conscientious and good company. He was also one of the most committed blueshirts I have met in my time in the Oireachtas.

Bernard applied for the post on the Sports Council through the new public application process. Somehow, his name came out of the hat. An FG minister appointed him.

Fianna Fail would never have appointed Bernard. Nor would Fine Gael ever appoint a former Fianna Fail minister to Bernard’s gig.

The reformist regime has swept Brody Sweeney on to the top table at Bord Bia. I got to know Brody when he sought advice about how to become a Fine Gael TD. (Bad judgement, because I had flopped in pursuit of the same goal in the early Nineties!) He was a thoroughly decent man, was making a few bob with his O’Briens Sandwich Bar chain and wanted to “give something back”. We met for the odd breakfast. I remember advising him to demand the safe FG haven of Dun Laoghaire. He naively settled for the political minefield of Dublin North East, secured a nomination, but was carved up in the internal party plotting. He failed to be elected, but not before he was paraded by FG as evidence of their commitment to entrepreneurship. FG owed Brody big time.

In 2009, his O’Briens empire went into liquidation. Not that such ill fortune should disqualify him from sitting on the State’s food board. Luckily for him, FG came into power in March and gave him the break he needed at Bord Bia.

The reformist regime has appointed half a dozen judges. Most interesting was probably the news of the arrival on the bench of solicitor Patrick Durcan. The name rang a bell. Surely this could not be the genial Fine Gael senator with whom I served back in the Eighties?

The very man. Patrick from Mayo was an FG Taoiseach’s nominee to the Senate. He was a county councillor for 25 years, a running mate of the Taoiseach’s in Mayo, who now happens to have landed the undemanding — but well- paid — post of District Justice. Patronage has been good to Patrick.

Ask yourself would Patrick — whatever his merits — have ever been appointed by a Fianna Fail government ? Or would the current Government ever appoint Micheal Martin’s unelected running mate to a state board? Not in a lifetime. The spoils of war go to the winners.

The reason that I know so many of the new Government’s appointees is because they have political pedigrees. They mix in political circles. Twenty of the new regime’s appointments to state bodies have identifiable political links to the Government. Five of the six judges have similar connections. A lot of them have been as conspicuous for their political activities as for their business or judicial expertise. Indeed, Brody’s bad luck with his belly-up company should make his appointment at least open to challenge.

He need not fret. There will be no such challenges. He is safe. The Bord Bia quango is safe. Neither ordinary directors nor judges will go before Oireachtas comm-ittees for interview or ratification.

Before they came into government, Fine Gael and Labour promised an end to the old abuses. One-hundred-and-fifty quangos would be culled. Last week, the number came in at under 50. Independent appointments were promised.

Last Thursday, it became crystal clear that most of the quangos had been reprieved. The reformist regime’s appetite for appointing its own followers looked ominous only days after the election, when they cooked up a programme for government. Their love of independent appointments evaporated. They huffed and puffed about the disgraceful way Brian Cowen and his cohorts had stuffed state boards in Fianna Fail’s last days in office. The Taoiseach even sought legal advice on how to sack them. He received a negative reply.

Are we entitled to a whiff of scepticism? If Enda had been able to oust all the Fianna Fail loyalists who landed in board seats in the dying days of the last regime, he could have filled them with people of the “highest integrity” from Fine Gael and Labour.

The Coalition was temporarily thwarted, but is rapidly making up for lost ground.

It has not dumped its lip service to reform. About half of all government departments have advertised the Bernard Allen route, inviting ordinary members of the public to apply for the vacant board seats.

Sadly the reforms are cosmetic. While the public may apply, the minister makes the final decision. He or she can simply parachute any of their patsies into key positions, ignoring the public participation process altogether. Only chairmen need appear before Oireachtas committees where TDs will have no power to veto them. Indeed, a cynical minister could always suggest to a favourite with a nod and a wink that if he takes the ‘democratic’ road his name will emerge from the hat — on merit, of course. What convenient cover for a crony.

Old habits die hard. Cronyism has passed from one tribe to another. At least Fianna Fail was always been brazen about its naked patronage. It did not try to hide cronyism behind a veneer of democratic selection and bogus transparency.

Yet there is a fly in the ointment for the Fine Gael-Labour warriors. At the recent Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin, members of the diaspora volunteered themselves as a panel of entrepreneurs who would give their talents free of charge in the service of Ireland. They would willingly work pro bono as directors of semi-state companies. They would slot into suitable state boards, providing skillsets unmatched in Ireland. They would refresh sleepy monopolies like the DAA, An Post, CIE, the ESB and Bord na Mona. Overseas billionaires, achievers in such sectors as energy, aviation, postal services, transport and hi-tech companies, are now available in the interests of the nation.

Watch the Government flee, screaming, from this act of altruism. Now that Fine Gael and Labour have surrendered our economic sovereignty, they will cling like grim death to the one power they should surrender: patronage.

No wonder the quangos were reprieved last week. Fianna Fail must be proud of their opponents’ conversion to cronyism.