GUEST COLUMNIST: Corrosive lack of capacity to hold power to accoun

THERE was a synergy of sorts on Thursday between President Higgins interview in the Financial Times and the hearings in the Public Accounts Committee that day about the saga of misgovernance and possibly miscreance at the Dublin Dockland Development Authority (DDDA).

Another story yesterday about the difficulties within Fianna Fáil on agreeing a position on the Government’s proposed abortion legislation fits the bill as well.

They are all symptoms of a society that lacks the basic wherewithal to govern itself in an open way, in which freedom of ideas is vindicated effectively and the obligation to account is assured.

Instead we live, in spite of all, in a Republic where if speech is free the effective articulation of sustained debate that challenges received wisdom is immensely difficult.

In our Republic too, as evidenced less by the debacle at DDDA, than the unchanged and largely unchallenged shambolic structures that allowed that and more to flourish for so long, there is little hope for more than a lull in our cycle of stop/start debacle.

If the lengthy and inconclusive debate in Fianna Fáil on Thursday about abortion is ultimately a side show, it is an example of how politics is working to fail again.

One of the overarching themes of Michael D Higgins’ presidency is the need for people whom he calls public intellectuals to contribute conspicuously — if not, in fact, take a leadership role in public debate.

His wish is that the specific actions of State be based on clearly thought out intellectual positions. His is a timely and a well-made call to think forward from first principles.

My problem with his interview in Wednesday’s Financial Times, which I articulated in this newspaper and elsewhere, is that there was a marked lack of consideration of appropriate principles underpinning the highly-politicised specificality of his remarks then, as distinct from the challenging but appropriate tone of his speeches elsewhere.

The debate about the president’s Financial Times interview is now concluding. As it does, we should look out at the hinterland of a Republic where the sustained debate of ideas is so limited that the president feels compelled to do politically what should be mainstream in the body politic.

The freedom of ideas and the accountability of power are intimately interlocked. In Ireland they are incorrigibly log-jammed. If most of the too little coverage of the Public Accounts Committee hearing on DDDA focused on what went wrong in a now-abolished quango; the debate is not turning to the learning what needs to be applied to ensure this cannot recur. This week’s hearings and the more to come are the archaeology of accountability not its substance. They are valuable but of limited value only. They will help us again do what we are good at, which is blame, but do little to achieve what we repeatedly fail at, which is change and reform.

The failed structures of accountability which allowed DDDA, Fás and more to happen are fully intact. And these instances of abuse while spectacular are so untypical as to almost miss the point. Much greater, far more corrosive failures of accountability are inbuilt in our systems and go unchallenged because either they are much smaller or they are simply ‘failures’ as distinct from abuses. They go uncovered, unspoken and ignored because of a corrosive lack of capacity to hold power to account. Power as people meet it is not the taoiseach or the president. It is the far-flung apparatus of State. Only when matters go very seriously wrong and usually long after the event is belated accountability brought to bear. Power, except at the very summit or at its most incorrigible is untouchable.

The mechanisms within the public service by which, except in very serious and by definition exceptional cases, accountability can be brought to bear is almost as ineffectual as ever. This fits into a larger picture like one puzzle locked in another, where at the senior levels of our administrative and political system there is almost no accountability at all. Elected politicians continue to preside over public service management legislation where the implementation of accountability and insistence on delivery is almost impossible. Very many public servants deliver outstandingly; those who don’t are effectively immune.

Within the body politic the accountability of government to parliament mirrors in its utter ineffectiveness the accountability of the senior management of the public service to government itself. The excellent work, this week, of the PAC and its members is, in ways, a testament not to the effectiveness of parliament but its own appalling weakness and that of the systems it presides over.

Underlying our malaise is, as the president correctly diagnosed, a politics and a wider public debate that has many passing fashions but very few sustained principles. For all the ambition and vanity of politics it is astonishing how little its successful practitioners settle for.

Channelled into a culvert that drains their life force away, success is measured by office and office is denuded of power. Power at its most potent is the power of ideas and the sustained debate of ideas anathema in our system.

Fianna Fáil’s anguish on agreeing a position mirrors the intellectual incontinence of our debate on abortion.

Impelled by a decision of the European Court of Justice and largely confused for months by a serious misconception of what actually happened to Savita Halappanavar, we again married rhetorical stridency and moral cowardice. The Taoiseach has expertly moved to unite his own party and divide the opposition. As old politics it is superlative. But it takes us nowhere. Legislating for the X case and providing for suicidality is a smoke-screen for avoiding debate and a referendum on whether the Irish people do or do not want abortion. Because we can’t face the question, we won’t arrive at an answer.

We are a people who confuse shouting abuse at the powerful with speaking truth to power. Our politicians confuse office for power and power, when petty and pernicious prospers unmolested.


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