Some thoughts on ‘Inside the department’ – posted by Matt Wall

A link here to the RTE Player’s version of ‘Inside the Department’, a documentary that provides some interesting insights into the realities of governance in today’s Ireland. Among other things, it documents the difficulty of leading a department that you have verbally eviscerated in opposition (“malevolently dysfunctional” is a particularly good catchphrase).

While the ‘sacred cow’ of the Croke Park deal is discussed at several moments, nobody in the documentary, at any point, questions whether our education budget bottom line should be externally dictated by the Troika. Neither does anyone ask whether the same Troika has the right to demand that the government makes these cuts while simultaneously insisting that it pays out much larger figures to the bondholders of failed banks. Perhaps it’s too much to expect such questions from people working on the day-to-day running of the country.

It’s also nice to get some idea of what a political advisor actually does day-to-day (though apparently it’s not a very useful job to admit to when you’re chatting someone up). However, the major issue that the documentary exposes is the obsessive extent to which our political and administrative leaders focus on the presentation of their decisions in the media. Whether that’s a good thing or not is open to debate, but it does seem to be the system that we have.

Still though, it seems like a good idea to me to open up departmental work to the public via this sort of documentary, so the Minister and his team should be commended for their participation.

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28 thoughts on “Some thoughts on ‘Inside the department’ – posted by Matt Wall

  1. The focus on the presentation of their decisions in the media is a horrible consequence of the 24 hour media cycle which is evidently more concerned with the visual than the substantive. This isn’t unique to Ireland of course. New Labour were the masters of media manipulation.

    • It is kind of worrying, though. Would have been better to see these guys researching alternatives, trying to find innovative saving or revenue raising models to spare the cuts. Seemed to me like the cuts were decided at the start and the job of the Ministry was dividing the cuts in some sort of politically presentable way.

  2. Hi, Matt,

    I fear you’re adding to gross public misinformation when you you complain about “paying off bondholders of failed banks”. I’m quoting someone whom I respect and who knows about these things (I’ve also seent he numbers previously myself):
    “Anglo is the bank that bust Ireland. On the night of the ill-fated guarantee there was a total of €11 billion of unsecured bonds owed by Anglo. Over the course of the two-year guarantee around €6 billion of these were paid off, leaving €5 billion or so unguaranteed.

    By September 30 2010 Ireland had committed €46 billion to the banks. Of this €29 billion was for Anglo (with provision made for €34 billion) and another €6 billion for INBS. It seems a little bit like revisionism to say that the ECB forced us to repay “unguaranteed unsecured bondholders in bust banks” by its actions in November 2010 when we had already poured €35 billion down these black holes.

    The money that went into Anglo bailed out depositors. A €29 billion bailout cannot be explained by €11 billion of unsecured bonds. These were not retail deposits from everyday customers and business but they were deposits nonetheless. Anglo got most of its money from wholesale and interbank deposit markets. How come there is never outcries about repaying depositors? It is only the wealthy who have significant bank deposits but the emphasis is always on the “casino-capitalist bondholder gamblers” or other such nonsense.”

    It should not be forgotten that the decision on the blanket gurantee secured a large majoirty in the Oireachtas. It seems to be a case of never let the facts get in the way of a good whinge about being the Most Opressed People Ever (MOPE).

    • Hey Paul,

      I understand that the bloodletting of public monies in the banking scandal didn’t go solely to bank bondholders. For me, the best thing would have been for the government to pay out its deposit guarantee (which i think was at about 20,000 before the crisis, though maybe it was increased to 100,000?). Anything over that, the depositors would have to eat the loss. Then the government should have sought to recover as much as possible of that outlay from the bank’s assets, with any outstanding monies to be used to partially re-imuburse deposit holders with more than 100,000. The banks, as completely failed businesses, were (and still are) bust, and should have therefore been liquidated – just like any other bust business.

      Anyway, given the conservative dominance of Irish politics, and the general intellectual paucity of our senior politicians, something like that was never on the table. Instead we got ‘the cheapest bailout in the world’ from one of the most incompetent governments in the history of this state. I know it’s an image i use a lot, but the idea that the Finance Minister was taking a late night crash course in basic economics in the midst of the crisis really sums up the incredible scale of incompetence and lack of professionalism that we are dealing with here.

      Still though, it’s well-known that the ECB insisted on full bondholder repayment in the bailout negotiations (from what I recall, the IMF was actually opposed to this imposition). The ECB, an institution of which Ireland is a founding member, appears ill-disposed towards providing a viable path out of the crisis for the Irish state (as such a path will inevitably involve a write down of the bank-related national debt).

      So we’re stuck with a bad deal negotiated for us by the morons who got us into this position in the first place. Sadly, there seems to be no will on the part of this new government to re-negotiate the terms of an agreement where Ireland surrendered much of its fiscal sovereignty for loans at somewhat less then market rate (or, to use the media’s preferred term, a ‘bailout’).

      More starkly, there seems to be little will to do oppose the status quo among members of the public (though I was heartened to see a teenager with ‘F**k the IMF’ scrawled on the back of his jacket). Where there’s life, there’s hope.

  3. Quinn is the one who when addressing the IPA a earlier in the year told them “you know what to tell the begrudgers” (tax payers outside the Croke Park disgrace).

    What amazed me was Quinn sitting down with some public relations advisor pretending to be Pat Kenny and Quinn practising his lines like a truant that was going before the head master. Absolutely unbelievable and quite pathetic and tells us everything we need to know about the low calibre of leadership in this country.

    As for paying bondholders? That decisions was made against the wishes of practically the whole of the EU and without consulting anyone. Now that it has proved to be a disaster we are trying to slither out of the “no bondholder will be left behind” attitude. The other issue is money of course they have the right to dictate conditionality but it is the bottom line they are interested in and the detail of the cuts are up to us. Of course, when you have the Croke Park betrayal system going full tilt and minister Howlin spinning statistics and lies that would shame Joeseph Goebbels it is hard to stomach this government. I look forward to when they cannot afford to pay for the spin doctors and btw did you see that 115 million was paid by the NTMA alone to explain things to the ordinary people of Ireland. Something like, “we are broke the government cannot sell sovereign bonds accept to our own banks some geezer called Michael Hassenstab from Templeton Global who thinks he knows more about the Irish economy that Constantin Gurdgiev and the ECB. we are living off bailout funds and may well have to try and borrow more money (a second bailout) from ESM that is when there is actually money in the ESM and of course Spain, Italy and Portugal will get first call.” That will be another cheque in the post for 5,000. The way the country is being “run” is absurd and Quinn is up there with the most incompetent.

    • Matt , Paul & Robert – these articles and posts are filed inter alia under ‘political culture’ .. A deputy elected to the Dail & Senate is no better than the ordinary man in the street you and me but some of them shape around as if they were something special. It is really the Civil Servants who must or should know – if they are up to speed and have their ear to the ground what the fiscal situation is and where we are going. . When one thinks of those years – the head of government involved in the Ansbacher , Guinness Mahon affair off shore accounts etc it was a signal that things were starting to go down the tubes; and the planning scandals and John Gogarty, a brave man, et al we must question what on earth was going on that these corrupt activities were allowed to continue – and no real accountability.
      Attorney General hands tied, Financial Regulator innefective.
      Banks/Building societies conducting casino like activities What I am getting at is the ‘mind set’ not only of the electorate ;14000 electorate franchising a Deputy with a seedy past : 4000 rallying representing high flyers in church & sport for a guy who through greed and averice caused the unemployment of many unfortunate workers. That is blatant ‘cute hoorism’ alive and well in this defunct Republic. And now the incumbents in government are denying the electorate a Citizen Assembly for REFORM of the Constitution and Institutions while that ayotollah of a Taoiseach hangs on to the power to impose what he wants and FAILING to honour the promises in the parties election manifesto . A Citizen Assembly 33 page proposal by the 2nd Republic Movement was presented to the parties in Leinster House on 18th January 2008 ; the debate in the Dail on the Convention proposed by the government was pathetic with very little contribution from the opposition – the arrogance of Alex White on behalf of the government on that Today Tonight programme spoke volumes . One can only hope that there will be a reform of the ‘political culture’ , otherwise we can only expect more of the same . I am sure this has all been rehashesd elsewhere – the real trick is how the psyche/mind set can be turned around – looking for an inspired response to save us from ourselves.

      • Couldn’t agree more, Golding. If it’s any consolation, it’s not only Ireland where we need a re-invention of democracy for the 21st century. Still though, without the people fighting for it, positive change won’t happen on its own, and we’ve seen that turkeys will not vote for christmas.

  4. A nasty, divisive – and totally counter-productive – private sector v. public sector conflict has been bubbling for some time. Eddie Molloy has added some more fuel to the fire in today’s IT:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0907/1224323695579.html

    It appears that one reason for the mounting fury is that blatant rent seeking in the public sector can be seen quite clearly. The rent seeking in the private sheltered sectors – and to a considerable extent in the semi-states, isn’t so easily discernible. But it is as much, if not more, a blight on the economy as rent seeking in the public sector.

    Until voters decide to restore the democratic process to impose effective governance on these various competing sectional interests in the broader public interest, the domestic economy will continue to sink in to the mire.

    I can’t see the leopards that have been elected changing their spots. Even if they could, they lack the intelligence, imagination, courage and gumption to do so. But will candidates for public office emerge who are committed to provide this type of democratic governance?

    Aye, there’s the rub.

  5. Just finished reading the Molloy piece. What i hate more than anything is the capacity of the unions to shaft new hires in order to protect those already in position. For me, it’s just another symptom of the deep contempt in which younger people are held in Ireland.

    • Call it for what it is, Matt. It is the protection of rent capture in the sense that these are returns to the incumbents that are higher than there is public consent to pay or afford. The pay levels for new entrants are probably more in line with what there is public willingness and consent to pay, but it is possible they are depressed to ensure the incumbents capture their rents. This last is a measure of the contempt of which you speak.

      Penalising or excluding young people willing and able to work was applied in the ’50s and ’80s to protect the interests of the incumbents. In those decades the young who were willing and able to work took to the boats and planes. In this decade the external opportunities are fewer and unemployment benefit and assistance is more generous in real terms than it was in the past. That could change the popular dynamic quite a bit – probably to the benefit of SF and other headbangers on the hard left.

      If things keep going as they are, Labour is toast, FG will take a hiding and FF will really struggle to increase its support. Their collective stupidity is wondrous to behold.

  6. “their collective stupidity is wondrous to behold.”

    Indeed it is. In the ‘trade’ its known as Skilled Incompetence. Reilly was positively brilliant and as for his mentor praising his ‘courage’. Straight out of catch 22.

    “But will candidates for public office emerge who are committed to provide this type of democratic governance?”

    No. Just another batch of dreary, groomed sychophants. I hope you are correct about the demise of Labour and FG though I have the suspicion that many folk will not hold their noses and support SF. But if SF submerged smartly into the far-left and emerged re-born on the far-right! Who knows!

  7. Seems strange Paul that your ‘comments’ which I have always found are well bacanced have been ‘blown off’ . It would be courteous of the administrator if contributors to the discussion/debate were informe of the content and could respond .

    • Matt’s – post 7/9 – ‘turkeys will not vote for Christmas’ – well if the electorate & their public representatives cannot or will not ‘see the wood for the trees’ there will not be any Christmas for either !

  8. Probably the usual gremlins, Matt. No problem with ‘twitter-sized’ comments.

    In any event, there’s little point in commenting here. We have to wait for the next general election. The kind of politics pursued by TDs actively representing their voters and forcing beneficial changes in public policy just doesn’t happen in Ireland.

    In the meantime, we’ll have this Constitutional Convention charade to provide some distracting entertainment – to which Prof Farrell is clearly looking forward:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0908/1224323737219.html

  9. It is good to have discussion, exchange of views (and to get on the hobby horse !) here but wonder at the value seeing that contributions appear to be limited on this blog ? ! ‘Looking forward’ to the charade of this Constitutional Convention as is Prof Farrell and many others may be perceived as a joke and rightly so. It can also be perceived as a lack of confidence, and rightly so in proposals passed in the Dail. ( how do you deal with an ayotollah ?)But in view of the fickle ‘mind set’ of the electorate should or could contributers efforts be better engaged in addressing this issue of the ‘mind set’.?
    I see in discussion/debate in other areas that a Shadow Convention be considered which would entail the gathering of a ‘shadow’ Citizen Assembly which would allow for the deliberative democratic conversation that would or should involve and inform the electorate. This seems to be a worthy of widespread support,
    unless the terms of reference of the coalition agenda is widened, to include the very valid proposals that have been submitted by 2nd Republic Movement and others. The urgency of getting to grips with government of the people , for the people, by the people has been clearly demonstrated in the spectacle last week end well aired on the Jo Duffy show today !.

  10. And while we’re on this Constitutional Convention charade, FO’T in today’s IT is encouraging the 66 unfortunate citizens who’ll be ensnared in this farce to ‘secede':

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0911/1224323844703.html

    I can’t see this happening, but I would like to see these unfortunate citizens having the guts and gumption to tell the Government where to stuff this charade. They would be doing themselves and all of us a great favour.

  11. It would be amazing if something like that happened. The government could be opening a Pandora’s Box here – I would love to see the citizens take active control of the process. My guess is that if they do so they will be undermined at every step by the political establishment. Still, if the selection process really is as promised (I guess the 33 politicos will be government nominees?) then there is some hope that the citizens will take control of their own assembly. My suggestion is that they proceed immediately to redefine their agenda.

    • I’m sure the Government is well aware of the dangers. Every sinew will be strained to avoid them. The unfortunate citizens who’ll be importuned will be feted, lauded and cosseted because they will be doing ‘something really, really important for ireland’, er, the Government..

      However, it needs only one informed, clued-in and articulate individual to get the ball rolling in the right direction – as highlighted in the movie “Twelve Angry Men”.

      Even if this doesn’t happen, in this age of instant and widespread communication, all 66 will have contact with people outside the process. I expect the Government will try to impose all sorts of secrecy and confidentiality constraints.

      • Matt & Paul – thank you for ref to IT article . Regarding the names on this ‘charade’ Citizen Assembly – I woud hope that all the names would be published and that the electorate can lobby them for a strategy that ‘we the citizens’ require of them. They will not and must not be stooges of the coalition – and the electorate have the responsibility to spell this out clearly; the gov may think that they (the 66) will do their bidding . The remainder who should be a selection from all parties including reps from N I will also be subject of lobbying and under the influence of ‘we the citizens’ and if it is to be a truly democratic and deliberative process then we could hold out some hope of an effective Assembly for the Reforms that are so urgently needed to save us from ourselves; the corruption and incompetence from on high.
        Perhapts our 66 can be asked to address (my hobby horse !) the ‘mind set’ – maybe to ask the ‘churches’ to concentrate their minds on the basis of our laws – just for starters – The Ten Commandments or whatever relevant guidelines are used by other persuasions !

    • This focus on a ‘change of mindset among the public’ bothers me a bit. The behaviour of the vast majority of voters is perfectly rational in the context of the constraints and incentives they encounter. If all TDs and aspiring TDs sell themselves, and subsequently, if elected, act, almost exclusively as mini-ombudspersons and constituency advocates and ‘the party’ as the means of providing ‘governance’ that is only spelled out in ear-pleasing slogans, then it is difficult to blame the ‘public’ for choosing among the selection of rogues in front of them. The ‘change of mindset’ has to come from the political classes. And they have no real incentive to change it.

      • I don’t know Paul – for me, limiting oneself to acceptance of and reaction to the status quo is a problematic mindset. As you say, there’s little hope in waiting for professional politicians to reform the very system that brought them to power.

  12. Paul , i always use the story of sitting around with a few friends (8)discussing the culture of ‘cute hoorism’ in the society in which we live and posing the question of how ‘we the citizens’ could rid the country of this pernicious and corrosive mind set. A large majority
    (7 out of 8) made a negative response which surprised me because it gave me the impression that thay had an admiration for the ‘cute hoor’. I quite agree that the change has to come from the ‘political classes’ & I’m sure you will accept that the ‘political classes’ come from ‘we the citizens’ so it is a matter of ‘collective responsibility’ I would submit. Go and sin no more ! .

    • Matt & Golding Kidd,

      I see where you’e coming frm, but, as an economist I tend to fall back on good old demand and supply. TDs are purveyors of representation and governance. It’s up to them to develop better offers. Voters rightly cherish their ultimate power to choose. But the revealed problem is the nature of representation and governance between elections. However, voters are still stuck with the choices put before them.

      If the three main established parties stick to their current tack there is a stronmg possibility that SF will refine its combination of populist, atavistic, isolationist nationalism (which tends to be the preserve of the extreme, xenophobic, unhinged right in other EU member-states) and emply, but potentially dangerous, hard left rhetoric to give the established parties a bit of a drubbing and secure power at the next general election with some other fellow-travellers.

      In my view, the possibility of this outcome is the only thing that will force the established political class to offer better representation and governance. The risk of the loss of power is the only incentive they understand.

      • Paul , good points and well made – note you are an economist but like all economists of different hues each has alternative views .and varying opinions . I am just an ordinary bod still learning after 4 score ! and have seen it all and the same mistakes being repeated following from greed , averice and self interest. I am not so self righteous as not to admit that I also have made mistakes in my personal life with which I have had to cope but none of such magnitude to put me &/or my family at risk – like the way the elected representatives handled the financial affairs of the Irish family placing them in hock for generations. If I had done so I do not believe I would be brazen enough or have the temerity to stand before those who had entrusted me with the task – I would vanish into the mist as has become the fate of some – not by choice but by being ousted from office. .Your ref to SF is a possibility and of course that would follow from the fickleness of those who gift the franchise, that shocking unpredictable ‘mind set’ of the electorate for the cute hoor.

  13. @Golding Kidd,

    Thank you. Irish affection for the ‘cute hoor’ dates back to colonial times. “The Irish RM”, by Somerville and Ross, is the ‘locus classicus’. There seems to be this lingering belief that if the ‘cute hoor’ does well he’ll benefit others – ot that the emulation of his sharp practice will advance people’s interests. In any event, he provides great entertainment and material for gossip and tall rales. It appears it will take a long time before a majority of the irish population will be convinced that ‘cute hoorism’ is ‘negative-sum’ game.

    It looks like we’re shaping up for a conflict between Official Ireland and the many ‘insiders’ it protects – represented by FG, FF and Labour – and those on the ‘outside’ – increasing rapidly in numbers and being represented by SF and the hard left.

    Some Labour TDs are not unaware of the pitfalls. The Labour Party chair presents a disingenuous justification for, at least, some in Labour taking up the cudgels on behalf of some of the ‘outsiders’ (in today’s IT). He might be more convincing if his seat was not at serious risk following the decision to cut the number of TDs and if he were a bit more convinced about the primacy of the Dail in addressing and resolving these conflicts.

    The only question that remains is whether the established parties will recognise the ‘writing on the wall’ and change tack before the next election or decide to hunker down and hope to weather the coming storm.

    My money is on the latter. The overwhelming pressure is on FG and Labour to hang together rather than be hanged separately. FF will hedge its bets, behave in its usual opportunistic fashion and hope that it will secure more seats than SF at the next general election.

    Until then I’m afraid we’ll have to sit and watch the social divides expand and become more glaring while the domestic economy sinks in to the mire.

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