What this country really needs is full transparency in public affairs

IT’S GETTING so it’s difficult to keep up. Since Christmas, we’ve had to work hard to keep abreast of all the unfolding scandals, while simultaneously maintaining our healthy sense of national moral indignation.

What this country really needs is full transparency in public affairs

We’ve just put down another extraordinary week in terms of revelations and political reaction. The Government and Justice Minister Alan Shatter are dangerously on the back foot at this stage. But when you add all the controversies together, they come back to one particular word which our politicians love to sprout but are oh so slow to act upon.

Transparency — we seek it here, we seek it there, whether it be from the gardaí, in the salaries paid to the heads of charities and hospitals, or in how many millions we are spending to set up a water utility.

These are the fairly diverse situations which have been in the limelight recently but, as usual, details, such as we discover, have to be dragged out of someone or somebody. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how we “move” as a society, in a fashion that is more notable for being opaque and obfuscatory than open.

We have charities that take our money but don’t tell us, unless forced, where they’ve spent it. Worse, we’ve discovered it’s been spent on paying obscene amounts to individuals high up in organisations while the punters who need their services have been suffering. We’ve heard how chief executives of hospitals have been receiving top-ups from the proceeds of places such as hospital shops.

This is despite the fact the officials involved, whose facilities receive significant charity contributions from the public, already earn between €96,735 and €183,562 basic salaries.

From what we witnessed at the Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearings, some of these individuals, rather than feeling embarrassed at being found out, have taken the hump at the temerity of the HSE and the PAC to inquire into their cosy little arrangements.

Even with the distance of a few weeks, the chutzpah of the delegation from the St Vincent’s Hospital Group, who appeared before the PAC to explain why it was paying top-ups, remains vivid.

There was no sense of them being even slightly abashed at the disclosures. The experience was akin to pulling teeth, as TDs attempted to get full disclosure on how and to whom public funds are allocated.

Similarly, the details of what had gone on in the Central Remedial Clinic took serious tenacity on the part of the PAC, which eventually discovered that the CRC board had approved a €740,000 retirement payoff to former chief executive Paul Kiely.

There is an obvious consistency of behaviour here, and what we can deduce from this is that these people seem to think transparency is for Nordic wimps.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that this transparency buzz is a relatively new one for the HSE (notorious for years for leaving TDs who have put down Dáil questions to it, in the dark).

Now, the fact that salary top-ups have been paid in this manner has been known by the HSE for some time. This is actually an issue that was first raised in the Dáil 17 years ago.

Senior officials in the Department of Health, including secretary general Ambrose McLoughlin, were briefed in June 2012 on an initial investigation carried out by the HSE’s into senior level pay in voluntary hospitals and health agencies. However, it would not be until November the following year that the information was released to the PAC, and at the same time to the Irish Independent’s health correspondent Eilish O’Regan, who had been seeking it for some time.

It’s also worth pointing out that the decision to release the top-up information just at that particular time followed hot on the heels of a story by Prime Time. Its political correspondent, Katie Hannon, had revealed that the chief executives of four of Dublin’s major hospitals had written a latter to the head of the HSE warning that the hospital system was on the brink and could not tolerate any further budget cuts.

Cue the surprise release of the damaging top-up report, putting those same hospital chief executives firmly at a disadvantage in the public eye. So we are to be thankful for the HSE’s burst of enthusiasm for openness, but we are left with the suspicion that there were ulterior motives for it. So even when we get transparency, there is a worry that it could be for the wrong reasons.

This week’s salary revelation shocker concerned the eventual release of the €240,000 paid by the Rehab Group to its chief executive, Angela Kerins. This particular process has been akin to pulling the teeth of each of the members of the Rehab board, despite the fact that the Group received €80m in State funding last year.

Moving on from the L’Oreal culture to the consultant culture, we get the equivalent of a national electric shock when we discover that Irish Water has spent €150m on consultants. Environment Minister Phil Hogan justified that lack of transparency involved here by saying that he does not micro-manage situations. Dead right too, minister. If he did that, he might be held responsible, and people might expect that he would, for instance, share the facts of how much this new national venture was costing in the Dáil when asked questions about it by his colleagues.

Most serious of all of this is the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission bugging controversy — and the subsequent details of Garda whistleblowers and how they were treated.

Again we come across our old friend transparency and its sorry lack in our affairs. GSOC, it would appear, could write a book on lack of transparency when it has come to their dealings with An Garda Síochána, and, rather than get support from the Department of Justice and the wider Government, it has found themselves being constantly undermined and fighting for their own reputation.

AS THIS week has gone on, it feels as if we have headed into some dangerous territory with the ongoing GSOC issue, and the revelations concerning Garda whistleblowers and cases allegedly not being properly investigated.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin says he has documents which show these involve cases of “abduction, assault, and ultimately murder”.

These are very serious matters, clearly disturbing to those involved and their families, but a matter of great concern to all of us. The Shatter/GSOC/whistleblower story has followed a bizarre and disturbing path and feels as if it could yet be politically dynamite.

The long-term official effort to protect An Garda Síochána and keep it from having to be fully accountable has already resulted in the force being damaged significantly, with erosion of public confidence in it. It is time for a new approach all around, a much more open one.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

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