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Put a Mandarin in the Seanad

Posted on: May 8th, 2011

PUT yourself for a moment in the shoes of Joan Burton. A few months ago the Minister for Social Protection was passed over as Minister for Finance. Eyebrows were raised as she was the heaviest financial hitter on offer.

Today her normally hyperactive jaw must drop as her Cabinet colleagues debate the merits of complex financial measures.

Cabinet secrecy bars us from knowing if Joan contributes to the discussions on the economy. Or does she hold her peace, a detached professional with a wry smile watching the amateurs struggling with the numbers?

The Cabinet’s financial powerhouses are patently underqualified to make important decisions on the financial crisis. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is a former teacher. Finance Minister Michael Noonan is a former teacher. Minister for Public Service and Reform Brendan Howlin is a former teacher.

The financial troika is good at teaching. Let us hope they are equally good at learning.

Joan is an accountant, sidelined from the real action because she irritates her colleagues.

Opposite them all in the Dail sit Fianna Fail’s finance spokesman Brian Lenihan (a barrister), and Sinn Fein’s brightest star, Pearse Doherty (a former civil engineer).

So the main spokesmen on Finance, at a time of economic Armageddon, have no formal training for their portfolio. All intelligent people — fast learners no doubt — but financial illiterates.

Such a hole in their knowledge signals an obvious danger: that they become prisoners of the nuts and bolts mechanics in the Department of Finance. There is no suggestion that they are lacking in intelligence. They can all read briefs brilliantly — but Ireland’s top financial players do not have the basic tools to challenge the mandarins.

All the evidence suggests that they have been mesmerised by the Merrion Street cabal.

The Coalition’s craven capitulation to the Department’s position on the EU/IMF deal and its slavish following of Fianna Fail’s economic line shows not only a common policy, but also a common comfort zone — most probably, the cushy confines of the permanent government camped in Mandarinhouse in Dublin’s Merrion Street.

The Oireachtas is starved of champions of finance and experts in business. This week Enda Kenny can plug the gap at a stroke.

The Taoiseach faces the acid test of whether to turn his back on tribal patronage in the interests of the economy.

Eleven Taoiseach’s nominees will be parachuted into the Seanad. Enda should fill the seats in the upper house with the backsides of financial heretics and unsung entrepreneurs.

He would be breaking with the tradition of installing party hacks. Apart from the evident merits of the recently re-elected supermarket king Feargal Quinn and the arrival of economist Sean Barrett, the new Seanad does not contain many captains of industry or economic gurus with a good track record.

Even in the last Seanad there were few members with business acumen. The Fine Gael finance spokesman was a doctor, the Green Party’s a community youth worker, the Labour Party’s another barrister. It was again left to Feargal Quinn to offer a voice with coalface experience.

Enda can remedy that this week.

Thankfully Ireland is stuffed with credible heretics. If Enda has the bottle, he could call up David McWilliams to peddle his radical economic message in the Upper House. David, an advocate of debt default and a referendum on the EU/IMF deal, would not sing from Enda’s hymn sheet, but he would force an articulate debate on the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael/Labour consensus that has so pleased the European Central Bank and the Department of Finance.

After nominating David he could appoint a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker as Fine Gael finance spokesman if he so wished. No one would notice. When David speaks, official Ireland sits up straight, shudders and orders a stiff gin.

The Taoiseach should then pick a rabbit out of the hat. Who, above all, defends the economic status quo?

Enda should offer a public platform to the nation’s most senior mandarin. A unique opportunity could be created for the Secretary-General of the Department of Finance to come out of hiding. The inscrutable Kevin Cardiff would take his seat alongside McWilliams.

Seanad exchanges between McWilliams and Cardiff would be compelling. They would require the attention of the entire civil service and the ear of Minister Michael Noonan. They would leave the blame-game down in the Dail and the sparring between Noonan and Brian Lenihan in the shadows. Senator Kevin Cardiff would hardly be a party hack, but could explain the formation of government policy.

While party hacks should be omitted from the Seanad 11, social partners should be blackballed. No nominees from the dreaded employers group, Ibec, nor any leading trade unionists should be allowed within spitting distance of Leinster House. Their social partnership conspiracy helped to ruin Ireland.

Labour will be allowed four of the 11 vacancies. Hopefully they will be given to the idealistic Michael D Higgins wing, not the power-hungry trade union faction. They should think of appointing Niall Stokes, who has successfully run Hot Press as a small business and a profitable magazine for several decades.

Labour could further recognise small business by asking Mark Fielding, boss of small business group Isme, to join the senators. Mark’s gang was excluded from social partnership while its rival group — the insiders of the Small Firms Association — was being wined and dined at the Celtic Tiger tables.

Big business could look to the multinationals. John Herlihy of Google would give the second chamber a priceless insight into the thinking of foreign companies based here. No one would better inform us about the needs of the most vibrant section in the Irish economy. None would carry more weight when protesting the importance of the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate.

Corporate governance expertise could be provided by Niamh Brennan, professor of management at UCD. She is already busy cleaning up the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, but few would contest the claims of the academic director at UCD’s centre of corporate governance.

Another UCD maverick, Morgan Kelly, would send the mandarins mad. If he were to bring his provocative articles on the economy from the pages of The Irish Times to the floor of the Seanad, he would be doing the citizens a service.

Throw in Patrick Kennedy, the super-successful boss at Paddy Power bookmakers, and the Seanad would buzz.

Then we could allow Enda and Eamon a little indulgence while they each found a couple of friendly faces to feed the tribal appetites of their followers. Enda could reward old party warhorses like Frank Flannery or Mark Mortell, both guys with good business pedigrees to join the 11.

And who could represent the banks? Let Eamon Gilmore recognise the expertise of a former party leader, Dick Spring. Dick could give us the inside story of Allied Irish Banks where he is a “public interest” director. The Seanad would hum. The economy would benefit. The mandarins would smart. And Joan Burton would spot a few kindred spirits down the corridor in the Upper House.