Last week’s visits by British prime minister Boris Johnson to the Chancellery in Berlin and, later, to the Élysée Palace in Paris were characterised by the rabidly pro-Brexit press as a veni-vidi-vici moment for their champion.
Even in this post-truth age that seems overstretch fathered by Brexiteers’ proclivity to believe at least one impossible thing before breakfast. Mr Johnson’s meetings with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were depicted as if a viceroy had run out of patience with a backsliding maharaja and visited him in his mountain citadel to remind him of the reality of his world.
That was the reality but Mr Johnson was reminded of the precariousness of his position rather than the other way round. He was told to return when he had realistic proposals.
However, any temptation on this side of the Irish Sea to take pleasure in Mr Johnson’s brush with realpolitik must be muted; there’s far, far too much in play. This sadness was underlined when Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney conceded that Mr Johnson’s government was no longer a “reliable partner” on Brexit. The significance of that admission, one hardly lightly given, cannot be underestimated.
There is also our unlimited capacity to believe at least one impossible thing before breakfast, or at least to hope for one impossible thing before breakfast. That capacity to reject persistent evidence, to cling to hopes dashed time after time, is nowhere more alive than in the idea that we might reform how public administration works and orders its priorities.
This is a contested area, positions are polarised. Representatives of public workers insist they are efficient and deliver value for money and that any shortcomings occur because they are denied resources or are put in impossible positions. That may be true in the most general sense but there are so many examples of failure that those who oppose that view have a very strong case to argue.
The litany is threadbare — the National Children’s Hospital; rural broadband; new school buildings found unfit for purpose; the crisis in housing and a growing crisis in public transport; OPW “drainage schemes”; and, probably most of all, regulatory agencies so understaffed and limited that it is hard not to think that they are deliberately constrained.
Today we report on another source of frustration — State agencies’ incapacity to learn so they might not repeat expensive mistakes. The State Claims Agency (SCA) reports compensation payments have increased threefold in five years. Last year the bill was just under €350m, almost €1m a day.
The HSE, the Prison Service, the Defence Forces, Tusla, and the gardaí all drive this upward trend and, even if claims are inevitable, it is hard to accept such a rate of increase as it suggests a wanton indifference towards protecting public funds.
Some services are under-resourced but that may be too convenient an excuse and deflect from core issues. We must, for everyone’s sake, break this cycle of frustration and poor delivery. That will require resources but it is increasingly difficult not to believe that a deep change in culture, especially around accountability, would be at least as transformative. Even a fantasist like Mr Johnson might recognise that truth.