Labour didn’t know magnitude of problems facing Ireland?

Irish Labour Party - Didn't Know
Irish Labour Party - Didn't Know

I have just been watching Labour’s Dominic Hannigan on The Week in Politics and was amazed to hear him claim that Labour didn’t know the magnitude of problems facing Ireland during the General Election campaign last year. He offered this as the reason why they have abandoned so many of the promises made in that campaign.

It is the same attitude you hear when Ministers trot out the glib little phrase “we inherited this from the last government”.

I am long enough around in politics to know that the Government will be using variations on this theme for a long time to come. When there is a change of government, particularly on the scale we saw last year, the incoming Government is naturally going to dump on the previous one.

It happens everywhere. In the UK, although he is well now two year ins office, David Cameron starts off almost every reply to Prime Minister’s questions saying how he is trying to tackle the problems left by Gordon Brown.

Doubtless he will continue to trot out the line for a while more, though polls there are suggesting the British electorate are starting to tire of it,

I understand that the Taoiseach and his assortment of Ministers are going to spend the next year or more prefacing every utterance with the “it wasn’t me, it was like this when I got here” line of attack.

I just wish they would drop the “inheriting” hook and find a line that does not make them sound as if they are some unwilling group plucked from obscurity and press-ganged into taking on the Ministerial offices, salaries and cars against their will.

Most people “inheriting” a situation have found themselves in that space despite their wishes, not because of them. As far as I know you cannot legally inherit from someone you have helped to do in, even when that someone was already doing a good job of doing themselves in.

This government came into office knowing the situation they faced full well. They set it out clearly in their election campaigns and went to the people asking them for their mandate to tackle the enormous problems we face. Labour’s Finance spokeperson said the economy was banjaxed:

The two parties now holding the levers of power have every right to talk about the size of the problems, the need for difficult decisions and to throw a few belts into the outgoing government for good measure.

They should not, however, be talking as if this all something that has taken them somehow by surprise. They also forfeit the right to lash their predecessors on every single issue by effectively taking the same policy approaches.

The health issue and the fate of local A&Es is a good case in point. There is no credibility in the Health Minister outbidding the outgoing Government by writing open letters to the voters in February saying “Fine Gael undertakes to retain the emergency surgical, medical and other health services at Roscommon Hospital”, only to reverse that commitment a few weeks later.

The Taoiseach only adds salt to the wound by offering the defence that when Dr Reilly “…was contesting the general election he was not in possession of the informati

on about the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of non-consultant hospital doctors.”

If they squabble this much over small stuff… what happens when the big probs arrive?

About a week ago I wrote a piece for the Herald defending the government giving politicians a three week break for the Easter.

Scousers
Calm down lads, calm down

This was, I argued, a welcome opportunity for Ministers, TDs and their advisers to do some of the other boring, but important, work and also to take some time to reflect and think about the issues of the day.
Talk about getting it wrong. No sooner has the ink hit the pages than almost everyone in Government was out in public tearing strips off each other.
The whole cast of characters were involved: Environment Minister: Big Phil Hogan, Health Minister: James “Capt Birsdeye O’Reilly, Finance Minister: Michael Noonan, Arts Minister: Jimmy Deenihan, Welfare Minister: Joan Burton, Communications Minister: Pat Rabbitte, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, FG Party Chair Charlie Flanagan plus a few Government backbenchers including Labour’s Colm Keaveney and Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty.

The week before had seen some on the Labour side saying that Big Phil could have handled the whole household charge thing a lot better. Just as it appeared that that particular row had run its course, news broke that Big Phil was meeting with Moriarty Tribunal favourite and Tipp North TD, Michael Lowry only a few days after the publication of that Tribunal’s final report.

Within hours other Ministers, namely Birdseye O’Reilly and Noonan, were confirming that they too had meetings with Lowry. This was all too much for Joan who questioned the wisdom of this. So too did Jimmy, but more subtly.

Joan’s words riled Charlie who went on Twitter to ask if Joan had a Government death wish. Regina subsequently went on Radio to say Charlie was right and that Joan was wrong. Others thought Joan was right, including Colm, who also went on to Twitter to call the judgment of senior figures in Fine Gael into question.

Meanwhile Pat spoke to the Sunday Independent to say that he was frustrated by the “interminable delay” in bringing prosecutions following Mahon and Moriarty. Within hours of the paper hitting the breakfast table Alan had issued a broadside that had Pat in mind when it stressed the importance of not making public comments that might prejudice proceedings.

By lunchtime the Taoiseach was doing a bad Harry Enfield scouser impression telling everyone to “calm done”. All that was missing was him donning a Kevin Keegan wig and finishing off the interview saying: “Dey do do dat dough don’t dey dough”

Not only did all of this happen in just one week, it happened in very quiet week at that. If this is how the members of the Government deal with minor matters, Lord help us when the big problems come. And come they will.

The Government has had a fairly charmed existence since coming to office. While things are clearly not improving, they have not had to face any genuine crises or policy dramas.

Both parties have endured some setbacks early into their term. but none that really tested them. For Fine Gael it was the losses in the presidential election and referendum, plus the Roscommon hospital fiasco. For Labour it was the loss of three TDS, including a Junior Minister and a by-election winner, though these were offset by their man winning the presidency.

The handling of the household charge suggests they lack a certain deftness of touch, yet it pales into significance against the problems they may yet face in the years ahead.

How will a government that descends into public squabbling and faction fighting at the mere mention of the names of Moriarty Lowry or O’Brien cope if Merkel Draghi or Barroso decide to turn the thumbscrews on Corporation tax or whatever?

Have they all forgotten that they will be asking the people to take their collective advice at the end of May and vote yes to the Fiscal Compact Treaty? Might it not help their case to give the appearance of knowing what they are doing and all pulling in one direction?

As to the internecine squabbling, there are several systems in place to stop such petty rows escalating and getting into the public arena. One is called common sense. Another is the special adviser/programme manger system. Isn’t it time to get working on both?

ENDS

Dáil breaks can only benefit both sides

My Evening Herald column from Saturday March 31st arguing that breaks in Dáil sittings are necessary and beneficial

 

Leinster House

On Thursday Dáil Éireann takes a break for the Easter recess. It is set to return on April 18th. Cue a hue and cry from opposition TDs and assorted political hacks demanding that the Dáil return sooner or sit longer or whatever.

These protests are not only regular and predictable, they are just as entertaining as they are pointless.

These sham battles seem to be based on the notion that the more the Dáil sits the better. Really? It is hard to sustain that argument when you look at the household charge fiasco.

In its recent annual report the Government commends itself for increasing the number of sitting days, saying that the Dáil sat for about 127 days, roughly 36/37weeks, in its first year.

According to the government’s calculations this is a 44% increase on the number of sitting days in the first year of the previous Dáil (2007/08).

A major achievement you’d think. Though not quiet as impressive when compared with the years 2008/09 and 2009/10 when the Dáil actually sat for 35 weeks per annum.

But what’s a week or two between old sworn enemies?

It is the old public sector problem: measuring inputs, not outcomes. Successive governments have been guilty of it.

The Government’s legislative programme should be driven by the number of pieces of legislation it wishes to pass into law, not by a need to produce bits of legislation to fill up some allotted time slot.

TDs should not be apologising for the Dáil not sitting in plenary session over the next three weeks.

Yes, various Oireachtas committees will be sitting during that time – but something else should also be happening. Something that is, in my opinion, far more important.

Politicians and their policy advisers should be availing of this break to do something they rarely get to do: think and prepare.

There is a story, probably apochryphal, about a Minister walking along a corridor in his Department when he spies a senior policy maker sitting back with his feet up on the desk. “Have you no work to do?” asks the Minister, “I have…” comes the reply “…I am doing it now, I’m thinking”.

These short breaks in Dáil sittings afford Ministers and senior officials some time and space away from debates, motions and parliamentary questions to think and to focus on other matters in their departments – things that don’t often make the headlines at Leader’s questions.

Central to this is standing back and taking stock of where they are.

When the Dáil is sitting a surprising amount of time in a government Department can be taken up in answering TDs questions alone, particularly when its that Minister’s turn at oral PQs.

Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny is an essential part of the democratic process, but you also need time to go and effectively do all those things that the parliament will subsequently want to scrutinise.

But if the need for this “thinking” time is important for Ministers and officials is it absolutely vital for an opposition and its support teams.

The Minister has a full time team of 8 or more in his office to fetch, carry and prepare – plus those other senior officials along the corridor to advise and research – the opposition spokesman is often depending on two or three.

But it is not a matter of resources. While the Dáil is sitting the agenda is set by the government. The opposition is usually just reacting to it – or reacting to the media reaction to events.

This is not always a bad thing, especially for an opposition that is effective at harrying the administration. This was the case in the latter half of the last government. The only crumb of comfort it got from the polls was when the Dáil was in recess. When it was in session both oppositions parties’ ratings went up, especially Labour’s.

But an opposition also needs to set the agenda too. It takes a lot of preparation and planning for an opposition to get the focus on its agenda. These breaks can often provide that space.

Politicians on both sides should acknowledge this fact. Who knows, maybe the reporters who cover the Dáil and actually benefit from the break might even credit them for it.

Ends

So tell me Minister, how exactly did we find €3.6bn?

My column from the Evening Herald (2nd November 2011) on the discovery by the Department of Finance that we owe €3.6Bn less than we thought; due to an accounting error in the Government’s figures. 

———————–

Wednesday November 02 2011

IN one of his early routines the American comedian Bob Newhart explained how he had to turn to comedy when his career in accountancy came to an abrupt end. He described how he had, as a fledgling accountant, developed his own theory of accountancy which stated that getting within 10pc of the total was enough.

While the idea did not catch on with his bosses in the 1960s, it appears the theory has been rediscovered and redeployed in the Department of Finance.

Finding that we have €3.6bn more that we had is a lot better than finding we have €3.6bn less — but don’t you just feel that if it had been the latter the cuts target for this December’s Budget would have doubled.

At this point I had intended to explain the discrepancy. Having spent about six years in Government reading and dealing with Government estimates and balance sheets I felt sure I was up to the job.

But after about 45 minutes of reading statements from various agencies my head melted and I needed to lie down in a darkened room.

Those who understand these things better, tell me that this has all got something to do with the amount being rolled over like a Lottery prize that isn’t won, though it is possible that I got the analogy wrong.

Liabilities

The one thing I know is that the problem stems from confusion between the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and the Department of Finance.

Up to 1990 only the Minister for Finance could borrow money on behalf of the State. In 1990 that power, along with the responsibility to manage assets and liabilities and negotiate rates on the State’s borrowings, was given to the NTMA.

The NTMA proved itself quickly with savings on the interest paid on our debt roughly equivalent to reducing tax rates by about 10pc.

However, while the authority to borrow and manage the debt was delegated to the NTMA, the responsibility for the accounts and borrowings has always rested with the Minister for Finance and his officials.

There was a change in how the NTMA dealt with the State’s Housing Finance Agency and how it listed their assets and liabilities in its accounts which was not picked up on when the State’s general government debt was calculated.

It is vital that the confusion is cleared up and succinctly explained as soon as possible by the minister and his senior officials in both the Department and the NTMA.

The error is all the more embarrassing as the head of the Finance Department is due to take up an appointment in early 2012 as Ireland’s nominee to the European Court of Auditors.

This organisation is, according to its President , responsible for examining ” … whether financial operations have been properly recorded and disclosed, legally executed and managed so as to ensure economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”

Disciplines

It also raises an interesting general issue regarding the management of government departments. The Irish civil service uses a “generalist model”.

Department officials get a broad experience across a range of disciplines and policy areas. Across their careers, most civil servants can expect to be trained and work in a number of different areas. The benefit of this rotation system is that you get people with a broad vision, enthusiasm and wide experience of varying sectors.

Moving high flyers between sectors and departments helps stem the “it’s the way we have always done it here” mentality. But, it also has a downside. There are fewer specialists in those areas where they are specifically qualified and some posts that should require specialist skills and training are filled by people without them.

It’s just like Sir Humphrey said in a classic Yes Minister episode: “Well obviously I’m not a trained lawyer, or I wouldn’t have been in charge of the legal unit.”

My Herald Column: Man overboard as ‘Capt Birdseye’ Reilly caught in storm of his own making

See online here:

Man overboard. Just four months in office and the Government has lost its first back bencher. In fairness, they have a lot of them, so one could hardly matter that much.

The 2011 intake of new Fine Gael and Labour TDs are still so unfamiliar to us that, in all likelihood, it could take a while to notice that two or three of them had gone missing.

At this rate — losing one backbencher every four months — the Coalition could hold on to its 58-seat majority for another 10 years. That is if there wasn’t a general election due in just under five years’ time.

And that’s why this first defection might have slightly largely ramifications than originally thought.

Pressure

Denis Naughten defied the party whip by voting for a Dail motion calling for accident and emergency facilities in Roscommon Hospital to remain open.

In doing so, he has significantly raised the pressure on his former colleagues. The Roscommon Hospital Committee has got a scalp. Other hospital committees and pressure groups committees will be taking notes.

Minister of State John Perry, who promised before the election to return breast cancer services at Sligo General Hospital, will find the heat being turned on him. He won’t be alone in the simmering pot. Government backbenchers in Portlaoise and across the country will find more targeted and co-ordinated campaigns being whipped up over the summer.

Never mind a winter of discontent, this government faces an autumn of anguish. Correction: the Fine Gael TDs face an autumn of anguish on the hospitals issue thanks to the Health Ministers upping the ante just before the election. (He’s the one who looks like a cross between Brian Blessed and Captain Birdseye)

If only he had played it calmer and cooler. Everyone could see Fine Gael and Labour were coasting to victory, but that was not enough for Fine Gael’s health spokesperson and deputy leader. Captain Blessed Birdseye wrote an open letter to the voters of Roscommon saying: “Fine Gael undertakes to retain the emergency surgical, medical and other health services at Roscommon Hospital.”

Last week the Taoiseach sought to defend the good Captain with the argument that Dr Reilly said this when he ” … was contesting the general election (and) he was not in possession of the information about the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of non-consultant hospital doctors”.

This did not, however, explain Deputy Naughten’s announcement at the end of March that Fine Gael had firmly “put a halt to any plans by the HSE to withdraw services from smaller hospitals”, and that it would not only protect, but would also enhance and develop these services.

One presumes that his words had Captain Blessed Birdseye’s blessings. If not, the Roscommon Deputy has made a rod for his own back. If he had, then there is still some considerable mileage left in this story.

This is also about management of expectations. The last government reduced expectations enormously, though as often by accident as by design. This Government came in building up expectations beyond anything that was deliverable.

Enda may come to regret leaving ministers in the portfolios they held in opposition. Yes, they are familiar with the minutiae of the issues, but they are also left to face those promises they made. Fine Gael could well end up reaping a whirlwind it started by itself and for itself. To quote the Book of Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Put that in your sails, Captain.

Derek Mooney was political and policy adviser to a Cabinet Minister 2004-2010 and has worked as a public policy consultant since the mid-1990s

– Derek Mooney