TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is playing a blinder; no one in the Dail has yet landed a glove on Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore; old hands like Pat Rabbitte and Michael Noonan are brushing aside challenges in the chamber. While government U-turns are two a penny, the main players are managing to emerge unscathed.
How are the Coalition’s stars coping so easily with the flip-flop in their economic policies? How can they so casually duck the flak despite the rapid deterioration in the State’s finances? According to an opinion poll last week, they are still enjoying their general election ratings. The honeymoon is holding.
Anyone watching proceedings in the Dail will understand the reason for the Fine Gael/Labour regime’s insulation from its critics.
Fianna Fail, the main opposition party, is firing blanks. FF leader Micheal Martin has embedded himself in firm terrain, positioning the party as defenders of the 12.5 per cent corporation tax. Northern Ireland too is safe territory.
The economy is almost taboo. Any attacks from Micheal on the Government’s economic policy boomerang when Kenny happily hurls the responsibility for the financial collapse back in the face of the opposition.
So the new Government’s copycat capitulation to the IMF/EU deal has produced a political standoff.
Some of us on the independent benches sit behind Fianna Fail, eyeballing Fine Gael and Labour, aiming our ammo equally at Enda opposite and Micheal sitting directly in front of us. We can shoot Enda head-on and Micheal in the back.
Economic policy has not changed, so bombarding Tweedledum is simultaneously sniping at Tweedledee.
Enda and Eamon have funked the chance to break out of the Fianna Fail economic straitjacket. They are receiving the same number of pats on the head from ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet as Brian Cowen and Martin once enjoyed. Ireland is top of the class for deference, obedience and humility.
While Ireland’s rival tribal chiefs play an identical ballgame in Europe, surely that does not oblige them to ape each other’s antics at home?
Enda and Eamon have a unique opportunity to distance themselves from FF’s less savoury domestic habits.
Particularly in the business area, where the quangos are rotting with political corpses.
And the two boys appear to have blown it.
Three weeks ago, the Taoiseach told the Dail that he was exploring ways of reversing Fianna Fail’s orgy of political appointments to semi-state bodies in its dying days in office. Last week, he reported that the AG had told him he could not sack them. There were legal difficulties.
What a relief. Lucky Fianna Fail loyalists were immovable from the quangos. Even the Taoiseach could not dismiss them from office.
Enda’s colleague, Richard Bruton, had promised to remove all political appointees on state bodies after FG’s arrival in office. Suddenly the whole army of FF infiltrators on the boards were reprieved by the AG’s benign advice.
A setback, but all was not lost. The reformers had a remedy: the Government has announced a dramatic departure in appointments to state boards. Two weeks ago, the enlightened new Transport Minister Leo Varadkar approved an advert seeking four new directors for CIE.
Welcome to the brave new world of the semi-states. The public is being invited to apply for positions on state boards. Fine Gael and Labour are attacking the cancer of cronyism in Irish public life. For the first time, Fianna Fail cronies will not be automatically replaced by Fine Gael and Labour cronies. There will be an open competition. State bodies will be crony-free zones.
And to put the icing on the cake, the new Government is insisting that prospective chairmen of state boards will appear before Oireachtas committees to prove their qualifications for the job.
Not only would the Fianna Fail stranglehold on state bodies be broken, not only would qualified members of the great unwashed be eligible for the boards, but the chosen chairmen would even be forced to face the court of public opinion in front of the cameras.
Cronyism was being buried by Fine Gael and Labour. The dinosaurs were dead.
Sadly, in Ireland, dinosaurs never die. The dinosaurs have simply been given cover.
Sure, the public are welcome to make applications by the bucketful; but even a cursory glance at the government plans revealed the old process was alive and well, touched up with a little cosmetic surgery. As always, the final selection would be made by the minister. Worse still, he or she could choose anyone who had never even submitted themselves to the public process. A political protégée could be parachuted into the post at any stage. The public application charade could be bypassed.
Too cynical a view? Surely the second line of democratic defence, the Oireachtas committee, could veto an unsuitable candidate?
Unfortunately not. There is no provision for the Oireachtas committee to stop a candidate favoured by the minister. It will merely be allowed to question him. Then the selection will be made by the party politician. Just as it was under Fianna Fail.
Furthermore, the public examination only applies to chairmen. Ordinary board members do not have to endure such inconvenient scrutiny.
This clever camouflage tallies with rumours that floods of requests are suddenly pouring into TDs and ministers from party loyalists demanding they seize the sinecures so long held by Fianna Fail’s puppets.
The new set-up is a sham.
Expect to see plenty of adverts for semi-state directors. Expect well-flagged televised Oireachtas hearings. After that, there will be token appointments of ordinary applicants followed by dozens of jobs for bearded socialists with Labour Party pedigrees and Fine Gael followers with only a veneer of qualifications for the state board.
Semi-state bodies are safe in the hands of party politicians. If you want a job as a director, I suggest you take the political route. Knobble the minister, forget the public adverts. The spoils of war are back in play.
As if we needed a reminder, one of the most protected species in the quango kingdom resurfaced on Thursday. BoI’s woeful numbers were defended on RTE’s Morning Ireland by chief executive Richie Boucher, the old banker miraculously still in situ. Boucher, an old guard devotee of the school that ruined the economy, was back on the airwaves — plotting the way forward!
Answering questions on Wednesday about whether Boucher and his fellow bankers would face grillings by Dail committees, Kenny was evasive. We could expect “announcements on the governance of boards of banks in the near future”.
More ominously, he insisted that “the boards of banks are entirely different from state boards”.
Not in my book. Both are in the gift of the Government. Both are stuffed with political and business insiders. Both should be accountable to the Dail.
Instead, there will now be no cleanout of state boards, as promised. The public participation is a piece of window dressing. Oireachtas committees will be rubber stamps. Political appointees are alive and well, survivors of the change in Government.
Fianna Fail is content to sit silent as the new Government begins to fit into all its clothes.