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John McGuinness: PAC must steer country on the right course now politics has lost its way

Howlin’s move to push committee to one side on the banking inquiry should be viewed with suspicion, writes John McGuinness

Article taken from Sunday Independent – Sunday July 08 2012

Minister for Public Sector Reform, Brendan Howlin, has floated the possibility that the bank inquiry could be conducted by a Dail committee other than the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

His Labour colleague Alex White has quickly come out to support that position. Transport Minister Leo Varadkar was also sent on the airwaves to deal with my strong objections to this. Leo had no doubt about the committee’s ability to do the work, but he was concerned that we were already doing too much. I can assure him that he has no need to worry. But I worry about what is going on.

I have no doubt that this opinion is shared by many of the senior civil servants. They too would say that PAC is doing too much — too much digging, too much investigating, too much searching for the truth, and too much tugging at the veil of half answers, memory lapses and obfuscations that covers a mind-boggling degree of incompetence and inefficiency, for which no one is ever found responsible.

We are frequently told that systematic failure is to blame, which suggests that in the public service, systems operate without human involvement or control. The country is run by machines and systems with minds of their own?!

Some senior public servants do not want PAC growing teeth that it was never meant to have, but we have grown them ourselves through the good work of the committee down through the years. They want puppet committees that can growl enough to appear effective, which keeps the public happy, but have no teeth to cause the public service any meaningful discomfort.

Senior public servants fear that PAC is growing too strong, independent and effective, which will give other Dail committees licence to do the same. But the greatest fear is that politicians generally will grow confident enough to do the job they were elected to do and paid well to do: lead and kick ass.

I believe in the work PAC does and I will, as chairman, defend the reputation, independence and abilities of a committee that has won the respect and trust of the Irish people against any attempt to interfere with the way it goes about its business.

There is, at the heart of our administration, a reactionary, unprofessional and inefficient group of senior public service managers whose veneration of the status quo — and the perks, pensions and pay it gives them — is costing this country a very large fortune, while they abuse the commitment and destroy the morale of their front-line workers. It is a disgrace.

And that will continue until politicians find the backbone, energy and vision that takes them beyond narrow party politics, redundant ideologies, political posturing and shadow boxing, to deliver to the Irish people that which they promise them at every election: a country run in an efficient, transparent manner where everyone — including senior public servants — is held accountable.

If I needed further evidence of lack of commitment, I was given it a few days later when I received a letter from Environment Minister Phil Hogan informing me that he was invoking a standing order — so ancient that Brian Boru must have proposed it — to prevent PAC investigating the shocking scandal that is the Dublin Docklands Development Authority.

Some of his arguments deserved consideration, but I have the distinct impression that senior civil servants want to avoid a spotlight being turned on another sorry mess and Mr Hogan manned the switch. I have now suggested an alternative that will allow us to proceed in private, but I am not holding my breath.

Nearly every week, the PAC looks at black holes into which many millions have disappeared and listens to explanations from senior public servants that would be risible if the country wasn’t on its knees.

Politics has lost its way, and maybe its soul. Politicians have become the glove puppets of a culture and a system that is simply bent on self-protection, unable to understand at its highest levels the damage it is doing. This has to change and every politician in the Dail should play their part in making it happen.

The time has come for politicians to stand up, regain control and restore the healthy tension and respect that should exist between public servants and their political masters.

We should immediately review the 1924 Act that essentially guarantees anonymity to senior public servants who are extremely well remunerated for the jobs they do.

Politics without backbone, public service without professionalism and trade unions without vision have all helped to bring Ireland to its knees. Whatever about bankers and chancers, if those three pillars of our economy and society had been strong, determined and focused on their responsibilities, we would not be in the mess we are in today.

That is why attempts to undermine a committee of the Dail that does exceptional work, which proves what politicians can do when they put their minds to it and encourages others to do the same, must be resisted. In many ways, the committee system is the way forward in the Dail. It is a means whereby politicians and public servants can publicly demonstrate the work they do. It is worth fighting for. The officials and members of the PAC have done a huge amount of work preparing for the banking inquiry. In fact, it was PAC that first suggested that an inquiry should take place. It is the committee with the greatest amount of experience and it enjoys the trust and respect of the public.

Attempts to sideline PAC should be viewed with concern and suspicion by politicians and the public. The committee has prepared well and is the obvious choice. Why the sudden need to push it to one side?

I don’t believe that Mr Howlin’s reform agenda should include tinkering with the workings of the PAC. It would be far more useful if he took strong and speedy action to correct the causes of the waste and inefficiencies we unveil, and I don’t see much evidence of that.

Sorry, minister. Because I believe in the worth of PAC, because I have a duty to all those before me that helped to build its reputation, because I have a duty to myself and the Irish people to stand up for what I believe in: not on my watch without a struggle, which should involve you going before the Irish people to explain what you are up to, rather than sending others to do your work on the airwaves.

John McGuinness is chairman of the Dail Public Account Committee

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