In Heaney’s land of “password, handgrip, wink and nod”, we have a problem with public appointments

A unionist friend on Twitter pinged me this the other day after my account auto-tweeted my analysis piece on the possibility (as opposed to the probability) of Fianna Fail coming north for 2019 a couple of days ago…

Now all stereotypes contain more than just a modicum of truth within them, and recent stories around issues like the Apple Tax do little to play them down. Those most likely to repudiate the so-called Republic, are themselves [so called? – Ed] Republicans.

But if we have learned anything about Northern Ireland’s supposed high probity in comparison with our supposed hick cousins in the south, it is that on some scale it is little more than a comforting fiction.

As the Nama story broke last summer, I recorded a SluggerReport in which I argued that the whole pattern seemed to me to be depressingly familiar to patterns we’d seen in the depths of the Northern Ireland Water in the summer of 2010…

In the course of the research for that story, a lot of things became apparently that rarely see the light of day. Many of the evidential trails ran well short of the point at which they could be reliably (ie, legally) reported.

But what became obvious then was the fact that the dominance of a small number of very powerful players in what in the Republic would be termed the ‘semi-state’ sector were scarily close to one another socially if not commercially.

The selective unsighting of a Public Appointments Commissioner over the allocation process for senior public office is pure banana republic behaviour: but it is certainly not the only sign that insiders are allowed to control the game in ways to suit interests other than that of the res publica.

As Mary Lou McDonald noted in the wake of Mandy McAuley’s most recent Spotlight piece as saying the Nama story was now more likely a case of people either being played for fools or being willingly played for fools.

Therein lies the capacious bounds of NI’s old ‘plausibly deniable’ get-out-of-jail-free bond, which Northern Ireland’s wilful lack of transparency and systemic unwillingness to upset the status quo does nothing to confront.

Our highest level fixations with the Troubles and its awkward legacies often seems to blind people to present day injustices. As Newton Emerson highlights in his Irish Times column today, the Assets Recovery Agency (which, unlike its counterpart in the Republic, ceased to exist in 2008)…

… refused to investigate public sector corruption throughout the five years of its existence. Its remit of taking civil action to recover the proceeds of organised crime could easily have been applied to any number of alleged public sector scandals.

The agency did not lack courage or initiative – it took on loyalists and republicans without fear or favour. But it seems to have had a mental block on the concept of white collars being felt – a problem with law enforcement across the UK, as the British government has just conceded.

Emerson goes on to mention a fascinating study of nepotism in Italian universities, which amongst other things found that decentralization of democratic institutions there had led to increased nepotism in areas of “low civic capital,” but not in areas of “high civic capital.”

The relation between the size of Northern Ireland and the need to find people of the right caliber within its boundaries to sit on public boards is a real dilemma.  But allowing things to continue to dance along in the dark is no solution either.

The summary execution of four expert board members of NI Water in March 2010 appears to have been done for reasons that have never been fully or adequately explained: even though a number of individuals went to some trouble to prevent them coming to light.

In an age when technology is making transparency the new tool or weapon of choice, things are often not as bad as people fear. And yet a modicum of transparency might restore some sanity to the situation. Newton suggests repeating the measure from the Italian study:

A Perotti method matching everyone’s previous jobs should give an interesting result – I would guess Northern Ireland’s core quangocracy at well under 200 people. We could use this information as a serious starting point to ask how much nepotism matters and how firmly we are prepared to act against it.

Offsetting the power of personal relationships in a small place would require quite drastic measures – quotas for underrepresented groups, for example, or time limits on individual service. We may also have to accept that the pool of willing applicants is as small as Northern Ireland itself.

Accountability is the real sacrifice here, and with it increases in productivity, whether in the public or private spheres. Trouble is that there’s a tendency to wear transparency and openness as some sort of moral crusade, rather than grasp it as a real opportunity.


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  • terence patrick hewett

    By attacking Apple and a whole raft of others through the courts, the EU have done the financial equivalent of bombing Pearl Harbor. The US however has VW by the b*lls: they have got staff from the original VW design team “singing like a canary” They are looking for punitive monetary sanctions and custodial sentences.

    How far up the VW pecking order did the order for criminal fraud of countless billions in 20+ countries go? My guess is very near the top. Engineers do not suddenly decide to embark upon a continental wide criminal conspiracy just like that: they go to board level and say they have a problem and these are the options.

    The culture of “I was only obeying orders” is still alive and well.

  • anon

    “Accountability is the real sacrifice here, and with it increases in productivity, whether in the public or private spheres.”

    It’s not a conincidence, in my view, that Northern Ireland continues to have some of the most stringent libel laws in the developed world. Just look at the sheer number of publicly issued threats to sue for defamation issued by senior members of the DUP over the past few years. The abuse of the petition of concern by the major parties is also a big issue that should get much more attention.

  • Nevin

    “The selective unsighting of a Public Appointments Commissioner”

    Do our guardians of the public interest, our watchdogs, have to be prodded into action by our politicians [SDLP, UUP and TUV] and/or concerned citizens? This from a recent online article in the Irish News:

    In a letter to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, chair of the Civil Service Commissioners, Brian Rowntree, said they had asked for more information.

    “I and my fellow Commissioners were not informed of the appointment of the Executive Press Secretary or consulted on the appointment process used,” he said.

    “I have written to the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service seeking clarification as to the employment status of the appointee and of the relevant statutory instruments/provisions that were used to make the appointment.

    “Commissioners will consider any further action that they may deem necessary on receipt of a response from the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.”

    Commissioner for Public Appointments, Judena Leslie, said she had also sought “clarification of the process used to appoint Mr Gordon”.

    “Whether an appointment is made under the Code for Public Appointments or the Civil Service legislation it is in the public interest that the principles of openness and transparency are adhered to,” she said.

    The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General failed to respond positively to a request for an independent investigation into a contentious procurement issue back in 2008 and a few years later had to be persuaded, with some assistance from the Office of the Information Commissioner, to publish reports in a form that could be searched and copied from. Some patterns of behaviour observed in 2008 reappeared in the NI Water fiasco in 2010.

    Perhaps it’s worth repeating that the information content in minutes continues to dwindle.