Sinn Féin discovers public sector reform, a decade after everyone else… late, but still welcome

This article first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 10th 2022 and looks at Sinn Féin’s 10-year-wait to discover the need for public sector reform. I also examine their record on this issue, in that part of the island, where they have ministerial responsibility for public sector reform

Sinn Féin, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Something unusual, though politically significant, happened during the first 10 minutes of last Friday’s “Gathering” on RTÉ Radio 1’s Claire Byrne Today show.

We have become so accustomed to hearing Sinn Féin spokespeople sticking carefully to their talking points and holding the party line, that hearing one utter even the vaguest criticism of their leader, is jarring.

Yet that is what Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly did when she said that she “wouldn’t use necessarily the words that Mary Lou used…”. The words to which O’Reilly was referring, which she also called “inelegant”, had come from an Irish Examiner interview in which the Sinn Féin leader said of the need for public sector reform:

“But we have, in many respects, a system that is constipated, a system that is slow, and a system that needs to be jolted… “

It’s not often you hear a Sinn Féin spokesperson upbraid their leader in public and get away with it. Louise’s move was politically bold and strategically wise.

Her disavowal of McDonald’s ill-considered comments came at the start of a discussion where O’Reilly saw that she had to disassociate herself from the specifics of Mary Lou’s “inelegant” phrasing, if she was to have any hope of doing what her leader had failed do to – namely, to make the entirely fair point that there are systemic problems with the speedy implementation of government decisions.

The wisdom of her move was quickly demonstrated as others on the show, including Fianna Fail’s Jim O’Callaghan and former nursing union boss Liam Doran, focused in on the inopportune timing and the annoyance that McDonalds’s comments had caused to many in the public sector.

Doran, not a man to shy away from lambasting senior management, made it clear that the civil and public service had, over the past 20 months, demonstrated the ability to change and be flexible, stressing that this had happened at all levels, from top management to front line staff.

But while there there has been justified anger directed at the language used by McDonald, that is a secondary concern, for now. The key question is why has it taken Sinn Féin over a decade to even see that there is a problem?

The systemic problems with government efficiency and implementation that Mary Lou has only now discovered were clearly identified, in the wake of the global economic collapse.

These were described and catalogued at the time as including, the lack of effective parliamentary scrutiny and oversight, the effective unaccountability to the Oireachtas of senior officials, the paucity of state regulation, the under-funding and under resourcing of regulatory bodies, the fact that money rarely follows the decisions, hence the inexorable lethargy which besets the implementation of many decisions.

These arguments even popped up during the 2013 Seanad abolition referendum, where both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin together pushed for the abolition of the Seanad. One of the counter arguments to the abolition campaign was that the economic crash had taught us that we needed more systems of checks and balances in our governmental system, not fewer.

The public accepted this and rejecting the political chicanery of both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael. The pity is that every government since, including the current one, has declined to proceed with meaningful Seanad Reform or to increase parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.

Just before Christmas I spoke here about the need for a re-establishment of the all party Dáil committee on Covid, saying that:

One of the most churlish of the current government early decisions was to allow the dissolution of the committee on Oct 8th, 2020, shortly after it published its first report.

The irony is that the current Taoiseach Micheál Martin, was one of the first political leaders to speak openly about learning the lessons of the crash and implementing the vital changes needed to ensure that we do not slip back into the old way of doing things.

In his 2012 Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis speech, he told the public that:

We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that.

But he did something much more important. He committed himself and his party to learning the lessons of that failure, saying:

This is a crisis which is just too serious to think it can be solved without a complete reform of our public life. For too long, this has been a political system which only discusses fundamental issues when they become a crisis. It concentrates nearly all power in the hands of 15 people sitting at the cabinet table…

…If we are really to learn the lessons of the past, if we are to have a political system which can deliver long-term growth and stability, then reform isn’t an optional extra – it’s absolutely essential.

This realization informed his thinking and his approach for the following years. The pity is that he lost sight of it sometime in 2018 or 2019, perhaps when it dawned on him that he might get a turn to briefly hold the levers of power, At this point he switched to the cause of managerial minimalism.

But that’s an issue for Fianna Fáil. I am here to talk about Sinn Féin. The positive news for them is that they have come to the same realization, at all. The fact that it’s a decade after everyone else and comes with language that obscures how they define the problem, is bad, but the reality that they are offering no solution, is worse.

If you look to the part of the island where Sinn Féin is not only in government but one of its most senior ministers, Conor Murphy, serves as Northern Ireland’s minister for Finance and Personnel, and is responsible for public sector reform, you will not find much hope.

The only “reform” I can find associated with Sinn Fein’s holding of this office since 2016 has been changing its name from Finance and Personnel to just Finance. This does not suggest that they have not much interest in the civil and public service reform part of the portfolio.

It isn’t the only negative sign.  

Back in 2015, When the Northern Ireland executive was faced with the political burden of implementing the bedroom tax, a Tory cut to welfare payments, rather than addressing the issue head-on, Sinn Féin joined with the DUP and the Alliance Party and voted to return welfare powers back to Westminster. They handed the power back to the same Tory government whose policy was hurting those less well off – the people; Sinn Féin continually tell us they want to defend.

In his book “Burned”, billed as: the inside story of the North’s “Cash for Ash” scandal and Northern Ireland’s secretive new elite, Sam McBride details how the North’s Sinn Féin Finance Minister, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir was (quote Page 267):

“…in constant contact with unseen – and therefore publicly unaccountable – senior republican figures about the complex legal question”

So here we had the Sinn Féin Finance Minister taking weeks to secretly seek the permission of backroom figures, some linked to the Provos, before agreeing to impose cost-cutting measures on the RHI scheme that would save tens of millions with other ministers and senior civil servants. So much for Sinn Féin’s operational belief in public openness, transparency, and accountability.

Late last year, despite widespread criticism of the performance of Capita (the private company contracted by the to deliver Personal Independence Payment (PIP) Assessment Services in the North) a Sinn Féin Minister, Deirdre Hargey, renewed the company’s contract for a further two years, without going through any procurement process.

Mention any of this to Sinn Féin and their stock answer is that the British government is responsible for what happens in the North and that they are powerless.

Well, how could they be other than powerless with Sinn Féin MLAs voting away what few powers they have rather than exercising them.

Willie O’Dea accurately summed up the Sinn Féin policy approach to every problem and every question in a six second line: lads the answer is yes, now what was the question?

It was a neat summation of their approach, but as the latest polls show, attacking Sinn Féin for its blatant populism alone is not sufficient.

The desire for a change in how we do things is real. People do not feel their government grasps the scale of the problems they daily face.

Sinn Fein is riding the crest of that wave, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it will take more than just surfing on the surface for that wave to wash them into government.

Mary Lou’s Examiner interview showed that she has the facility to echo the publics concerns back at them, but the carelessness of her language on such a crucial issue shows that she neither grasps the nature of problem, nor understands how difficult it will be to drive through the necessary reforms.

That glaring vulnerability will not cost her in the polls… for now. There will be no major dent in Sinn Féin’s potential support levels until one, or two, of the main government parties make the changes necessary to show voters that they both understand the scale of the problems and have the ambitious and detailed plans to address them at that scale.

I believe at least one of them can do this. And will. The question is when. The risk is that they wait too long.

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