Nobody’s responsible, but everybody pays
Nobody’s responsible, but everybody pays

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

You can add to the list yourself. This is the one I came up with off the top of my head.

Let’s start with the health service. Only recently, it was discovered that millions and millions of euro had been illegally deducted from the old, the sick and the infirm in nursing homes.

For almost three decades, their pension books had been taken from them and their entitlement to state pensions waived.

The rip-off lasted across all governments in recent times, and all senior civil servants and ministers in the Department of Health. But somehow nobody was responsible.

When the scandal emerged there was a fast and furious punch-up in the Dail, but at the end of it all, somehow nobody at the top was responsible, it seems.

Next, take the roads. For a decade now we have been finally investing in getting rid of our third-world transportation system. Contracts were advertised and contracts were awarded. It now emerges that billions were overspent, tender figures on which contracts were awarded turned out to be meaningless.

In some cases certain roads turned out to cost up to four times what the contractors had originally estimated, and they were duly paid. Who was responsible for this overspend of truly gigantic proportions? Nobody at the top was responsible it seems, nobody resigned and nobody was sacked.

Next, take our electoral system and the e-voting disaster. Again, millions poured down the drain on a system that was never properly electronically tested until it already purchased and was ready to go.

Millions and millions of euro worth of these machines now sit in a warehouse in Waterford, costing thousands every day to maintain in ‘working condition’ - except they didn’t work in the first place. Again, nobody at the top was responsible and nobody resigned.

Next, take the police. We are still in the middle of investigating a policing scandal in Donegal, the details of which beggar belief - a litany of corruption and dishonesty on the ground, hidden among the mismanagement and systems failure at the top.

For years, all the way from the small rural stations up to senior officials both in the Justice Department and Garda headquarters, it continued. Certainly those lower-ranking police officers directly involved have been picked off - either sacked or resigned - but behind the high walls of officialdom there have been no casualties.

The Minister for Justice has taken public flak, but those who oversaw this extraordinary business continue as normal.

Somehow, yet again, nobody at the top, it seems, is responsible.

Take sport, and the new aquatic centre in Dublin, which cost millions to build, was then given to an obscure company to run, which had O150-odd in its accounts.

Two years down the road, we learn that no revenue has been generated for the state, and now the whole business is in the courts under examination.

The nominated shareholders of the Aqua centre - who presumably made this decision - turn out to be the three most senior members of government. Yet somehow they are not taken to task.

Somehow, yet again, at the top nobody is responsible.

After independence this state decided that the way forward was for public bodies to run essential services and utilities.

Health, gas, electricity, the railways, transport, turf, shipping, airports, etc were all handed over to semi-state organisations.

In fact, outside of the professions, the shops, the farmers and the small industrial base, these bodies were the largest employers in the state.

The people who in the barren economic times of the 1920s and 1930s originally got jobs in these organizations were doubly lucky. Unlike their schoolfriends who had to emigrate in their thousands, they got a job for life and pensioned employment, and, even better, they joined a culture where people apparently could not be sacked, only promoted sideways.

State and semi-state jobs could be a truly valuable sinecure. There was little or no public or political enquiry into their running costs or their recruitment numbers, and at the heart of these organisations a system of organised self-protection grew up.

Responsibility for decisions taken was a carefully constructed multi-headed hydra; the overwhelming instinct was not to make decisions but to protect those who might have to take them. In fact, they soon discovered that the best way to avoid making mistakes was to make no decisions at all, and so a culture of endless enquiry or long-fingering grew up. For many, the culture of self-protection was best served by systematic vacillation.

A decade ago it began to dawn on many that we had created vast, inefficient and hopelessly over-staffed public services.

Slowly, as our economic fortunes changed and entrepreneurial skills and individualism began to change the face of the state employment, tackling these vast public bodies became a political dogfight.

Slowly the overgrowth was hacked back, amid the intensity of the public/private ideological row.

Suddenly the joke about how many electricians it took to change a lightbulb wasn’t funny anymore.

But even though the bodies began to shrink, the culture of self-protection and the determination to obfuscate clear lines of responsibility did not. Even last year, as the retiring Aer Rianta board gave each other fabulously expensive watches and golden handshakes, did we spot their obtruding two fingers to the rest of us above the terminal at Dublin Airport?

Our political classes try to give the impression that they lead. They don’t - they follow the wind. And they instinctively know that behind them they have a system that protects incompetence and obscures responsibility.

From the appointing of guards to senior ranks, and stretching right across numerous public bodies and organisations, political patronage ensures a deeply unhealthy and undemocratic relationship between political power and the rest of us.

If I look after you, then you’ll look after me.

In vivid contrast to the meritocracy and performance-driven ethos of the entrepreneurial instincts that created the Celtic Tiger economy, the vast apparatus of the state still blunders along in its wake, guarding its mediocrity and looking after its pals. Quaint, isn’t it, to see the spirit of the 1930s alive and well in the 21st century?

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