Friday, May 8, 2009

Dublin by-elections: Is it time to vote NO to nepotism, cronyism and political inbreeding?


FG Labour Green Party


FFSinn Fein


Is the current economic crisis in Ireland also a demonstration of Irish society being suffocated by political in-breeding? I watched a report on the RTE News last night (Thursday, May 7th) which featured the candidates contesting the by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin North-Central. Fianna Fáil has chosen Maurice Ahern, an outgoing Dublin city councillor and former Lord Mayor of Dublin, as their candidate. He is also the older brother of the local ward healer, Bertie Ahern and is to fight an election apparently to be funded by a €40,000 loan repaid by Bertie’s former lover and national ‘meet and greet’ person, Celia Larkin, who had been provided with a ‘dig-out’ by the constituency party machine, unknown to many of its members until this was disclosed at The Mahon Tribunal.

Maurice is 70 years of age so he has enjoyed the freedom of a bus pass for 4 years. How many 70-year olds could win a Dáil election nomination if they did not enjoy the nepotism of a powerful relative? If this man has grandchildren would he not be better spending his time engaging with them, enriching their lives and enjoying the fitness and wellbeing he enjoys instead of attempting to develop a career in national politics? Surely it is time for a generational change after 31-years of Bertie’s incumbency.

The Fianna Fáil candidate chosen in Dublin South is Shay Brennan, the son of the late TD, Séamus Brennan. Shay works at Anglo Irish Bank and was reared in a family where his father made his mark in national politics at the tender age of 24 when the Jack Lynch selected him in 1973 to be General Secretary of Fianna Fáil. He succeeded deValera’s appointee, Tommy Mullins, one of the old guard who served in this role for 28 years from 1945. Séamus Brennan was charged with executing a generational transformation and modernising Fianna Fáil. He was a Jack Lynch nominee to the 14th Seanad in 1977 but a critical element of the Brennan transformation of Fianna Fáil was securing a Dáil seat for himself in Dublin South in 1981.  He retained this until his death in 2008 and held various ministerial offices since 1987, an era dominated by the Brennan-Kitt franchise and birthright.

If I was in Shay’s shoes, employed in Anglo Irish Bank, coping with the flak and turbulence that prevails there and the enquiries of the Garda Fraud Squad, perhaps I would, too, emulate what he is attempting. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, according to the adage and if the people are docile enough to support me why not give it a lash?  If the son of his father’s colleague, the late Brian Lenihan, made it to Minister for Finance and his other son has a cushy, undemanding chauffeured sinecure as Minister of State, he too might feel that air of invincible entitlement that comes with political pedigree. Why would he not feel his future would be more inspiring and rewarding as a potential Minister for Finance, calling the shots and negotiating coalition deals instead of hosing the latrines in St Stephen’s Green and enduring the slings and arrows at Anglo Irish Bank?

There are now 36 members of the current Dáil who have succeeded a parent, spouse or grandparent in national politics and that includes five members of the Cabinet (Cowen, Coughlan, Lenihan, Hanafin, and O’Cuív) and five of the twelve Ministers of State (Andrews, Brady, Calleary, Haughey and Lenihan) – also known as the slimmed-down team. Then there are others who have wives, lovers, sons, daughters and in-laws working for them as administrators or drivers paid for by the taxpayer.  One Minister of State defended this practice on the grounds that the confidentiality of his phone calls when being driven might be vulnerable if he were to be driven by a member of the hoi polloi.  I realise how important it is to protect and defend intellectual property but is this not a bit overweening?

What is wrong with in-breeding and nepotism? Those who enter cats in shows place a huge focus on their pedigree as do people who are involved with thoroughbred racehorses. Pedigree breeds do not evolve randomly as a natural population would. They are developed and nurtured on the basis of particular criteria. The objective is to attempt to reproduce a particular physical characteristic. But there is no guarantee that if two closely related cats, for example,  breed that their kitten will actually inherit the desired characteristics but they could very easily inherit severe disadvantages.

Inbreeding in humans or, indeed, in plants creates a similarity in the DNA sequence that can create a genetic disorder, impair the thought process and reduce the fitness of the specimen concerned. They also have a slower growth rate and achieve a smaller adult size.  Do you see any evidence of this in the body politic?

This country is overwhelmed by economic problems associated with political disorder and dysfunctional behaviour. The economy has been allowed to career out of control like a high-speed vehicle that has no brakes, coolant or spare wheel. The current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, succeeded Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Finance in September 2004. Many of the current failings are blamed on McCreevy.

It was he, for example, who instituted the office of Financial Regulator that has been shown to be comprehensively ineffective, light-touch and useless, led by a person at that time who, nudge-nudge, is now a board member of several banks, one of whom, Irish Life & Permanent Plc is dependent of the beleaguered taxpayer for support. The same person is also in charge of the CARB, the regulatory body that is supposed to keep the bean-counter antiseptic and fit for purpose. But the CARB is investigating the bank that its chairman is a director of and the individual concerned is going forward for re-election to the board of Irish Life & Permanent Plc at its AGM on May 13th. The cumulative annual reward for these directors was €934,000 in 2008 - €25,000 more than in 2007 because they were so exceptionally effective.

It was also McCreevy who inaugurated single-handed the Decentalization Programme in the public service whereby those transferring to backwater provincial hamlets would suffer the scourge of local property interests that a bonanza confers.

Cowan is a bright man supported by a delightful close family. But he is also the admiral of the fleet that hit the rocks and is listing aggressively. What could have done to avoid this crisis? A compass would have been handy and a flashlight would not have been out of place either. He could have kept an eagle eye on the escalating level of private sector debt and moderated the increase of this. When he engaged in partnership negotiations he could have flagged the impact of outcomes on our international competitiveness. 

I have heard Sweden being cited as a role model in the context of dealing with our banking debacle. Private sector credit in Sweden grew from 85% to 135% of GDP in the five years prior to the bursting of their construction bubble. Private sector credit in Ireland grew from 136% to 217% of GDP in the five years before our construction bubble burst. The voters would have preferred an economic policy that would provide a sustainable standard of living with modest gains rather than what has actually occurred. Furthermore, this fecklessness was cooked up by a coalition of bankers and builders who saw nothing whatsoever wrong in giving out titanic loans to borrowers who never were in a position to discharge them completely and fully. The spectacle of Boucher, now in charge of Bank of Ireland, is an iconic emblem of what happens when cronies, bankers and political cliques become chronically dependent on each other.  He personally advocated the proposed Dunne development in Ballsbridge with the planning authorities.  He now has to advocate capital for his bank in competition with the leading American banks who are scouring the world for billions of € in new equity.

What is needed in a credible candidate for high political office these days? Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources appeared on a recent edition of the Late Late Show and made a perceptive observation about this. He said the system should be representative of the population as a whole, just like a jury. I agree with that but would add that qualities such as communications skills – which means a capacity to speak without cliché or profanity, integrity and intellectual curiosity are also important political talents. Evidence of potential political skills – policy understanding and advocacy and in the case of those charged with policy oversight and execution, an appropriate competency is mandatory.

The surprise decision by George Lee to stick his oar in on behalf of Fine Gael in Dublin South caught many off guard, including, it seems, his employers. He has a fine mind, a capacity to analyse complex problems that impact hugely on the public and communicate with ease.  His arrival has piqued the interest of voters.  But has George learned that when, in shopping centres, he embraces old ladies who are not wearing their false teeth, that he must not bruise their cheeks?

George’s participation in this election really puts it up to the Labour candidate, Alex White. His name has been floating around the periphery of public consciousness for some time but in a background ill-defined sort of way. Alex will need to shed the cloak of anonymity and emerge from opacity if he is to make his mark.

I also noted the Sinn Féin candidate in Dublin South, Shaun Tracey on that RTE News clip. His profile is so low I had to Google him several times to find his name, which was buried in a news story about George Lee. His own party web site doesn’t seem to claim him. Tracey was as inspiring as a random individual who repairs the punctured tyres of motor vehicles and didn’t seem to convey any inspiring wow factor whatsoever to the voters of Dublin South. The charisma and lucidity of Barrack Obama has eluded him.

The Green Party candidate, Elizabeth Davidson, seems to be getting some flak about the party participation in government.  My view is that political parties should be in existence to make an impact not to merely play a marginal, opposing role.  Politics is about achieving power and using power.  I think that notwithstanding the economic difficulties that the Green contribution to this government has been pretty decent.

The collective wisdom of electorates never ceases to amaze me. They rarely make random or unbalanced or primitive judgements. They collectively and seamlessly transfer their mandate from one generation to another, almost unprompted.  One of their considerations from now on maybe whether the birthright conferred by the Irish political parties has run its course and the noblesse oblige might be accordingly relieved of their intended destiny.  I fear Ireland will emulate African tribalism soon if inbreeding and nepotism is not curtailed.  The poverty component is already apparent, not just among the destitute but also among the concealed but overburdened coping classes.

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