‘Big Freeze’ is latest symptom of national paralysis

The long-term consequence of ignoring the obvious is, sooner or later, yet another ‘crisis’ in the IRISH TIMES January 12, 2009


WHEN SNOW falls heavily, the pressure from the accumulated snow piles up on top of itself. By failing to take immediate action to clear or grit the snow, falling temperatures combine to create the perfect conditions for compacted snow and icy conditions.


In the absence of a plan and the wilful approach to ignore the inevitable in the hope of something undefined, a country can come to a standstill. Its schools are shut, water supplies run low, emergency services are overwhelmed and transport services are severely curtailed. The long-term consequence of ignoring the obvious is, sooner or later, paralysis. The everyday normalities of travelling to work, going to the supermarket or feeding animal stock become treacherous.


The administrative and political response to the Big Freeze is symbolic of the general approach to Irish policymaking. The predictable becomes unpredictable because of the failure to have a strategy and implement a plan. Mistakes are not acknowledged and it’s somebody else’s fault.


Responsibility is cast around like confetti. The Department of the Environment points the finger at local authorities as the agency responsibility for de-icing roads. Local government alleges that budgets for gritting materials were reduced, which was why grit stocks were at critical levels.


But then the thaw arrives, crisis is averted and everybody moves on. And nothing is learned.


Only a few months earlier, the extensive flooding followed the same pattern. The consequences of decisions to build on floodplains and not to clean rivers, update drainage systems or implement previous flooding reports, all proved devastating for those that lost their homes, livelihood and possessions. The lack of inter-agency communication and a confusion of responsibilities between the ESB, Office of Public Works, Waterways Ireland, local authorities and government departments exacerbated the flooding.


But like the snow, the floods recede, another crisis comes along and public and political attention shifts.


The word crisis is attached to every national issue. The severe weather crisis, the economic crisis, the banking crisis, and so on. This crisis-led approach becomes an instinctive, repetitive behaviour and prevents the systematic early consideration of shortcomings.


Long-term macro public policymaking is routinely sacrificed for short-term micro interventions.


Why is this the case? Are there deep-seated institutional problems which underpin the Irish system of governance? How are internal decision-making processes arrived at? Do the Civil Service and their political masters have the intellectual capacity to manage uncertainties? Is chronic maladministration entrenched within the system?


Where, for example, do the lines of responsibility and accountability lie between ministers and senior civil servants? Would a banking inquiry reveal that successive finance ministers manifestly ignored the policy advice of senior Department of Finance officials or that the advice provided was utterly wrong?


We don’t know.


Previous inquiries, however, have highlighted grave concerns about the nature of internal government decision-making.


In only the second time in the 25-year-history of the Ombudsman’s office, Emily O’Reilly presented a special report to the Houses of the Oireachtas last month on the “Lost at Sea” scheme.


The scheme, introduced by former marine minister Frank Fahey in 2001, provided compensation, in the form of tonnage quota, to those who had lost fishing boats between 1980 and 1990. Of the 67 applicants, only six qualified for this valuable quota. In a hand-written note to his assistant secretary, Fahey instructed that he wanted “to see how we can ringfence the 6 to 8 genuine cases. . .”


Tony Faherty and Paddy Mullen, both constituents of Fahey, obtained 75 per cent of the total compensation offered under the scheme. Both men made representations to Fahey and received written notification from the minister when the scheme was introduced.


Civil servants initially strongly objected to any such concessions.


In his interview with the Ombudsman, the secretary general of the department, Tom Carroll, noted that Fahey was particularly tenacious on the issue.


Carroll indicated that he may have been the author of this unsigned Civil Service memo to Fahey: “Piecemeal changes in policy in response to special pleadings from individuals where these changes would run totally contrary to policy objective, give large unrequited gains to these individuals and open up equally ‘meritorious’ claims, [and] cannot be recommended.”


Fahey ignored these concerns.


In her report, the Ombudsman noted that “the department’s files contain little or no evidence as to how the minister and his officials reconciled these opposing views and arrived at a compromise and the specific criteria which became the basis for the published scheme. What is clear is that the actions of both the minister and his officials resulted in a scheme which was too focused on known cases.”


This, she believed, was “contrary to fair and sound administration”.


We don’t know the process by which decisions are arrived at, for example, within the Department of Finance. Given that the recapitalisation, nationalisation and Nama-isation of our banking sector are estimated to cost the exchequer €80 billion, surely we are entitled to ask why?


“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” Edmund Burke said.


It’s his birthday today.

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