Irish Governance in Crisis

In a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post my colleague Dr Niamh Hardiman  makes a plea for better understanding of the roots of our current crisis in weaknesses in governance institutions. Such an understanding is a precondition for effective reform. She addresses weaknesses in parliamentary scrutiny, the capacity of the civil service for appropriate engagement over policy making, and the effectiveness of the public service itself. She highlights institutional explanations for tendencies for public policy to favour sectional interests, but argues that understanding the institutional weaknesses is the key to addressing them. The article is behind a paywall, but a fuller, multi-author examination of the issues is available in a book arising from a UCD project on governance, Irish Governance in Crisis, edited by Niamh Hardiman (Manchester University Press, 2012).

By Colin Scott

Colin Scott is Principal, UCD College of Social Sciences and Law and Professor of EU Regulation and Governance at UCD. He is a Co-Editor of Legal Studies (Wiley-Blackwell).

22 replies on “Irish Governance in Crisis”

@ Sunday Business Post,

It is a pity given the great wealth of information contained in the Sunday Business Post website, that they cannot offer to people like students of economics, a 24-hour access for circa €2.00, or the price of a newspaper – and that the charge could be extracted from one’s mobile phone credit (i.e. removing any difficulties where one doesn’t wish to employ a credit card on such a simple transaction). I recall using the Irish Times payment system via mobile phone in the past.

Instead, the Sunday Business Post just hits you straight with a €7.00 charge, even if you only want to access one article.

I would not mind, but I had already supported the print version of the newspaper and had therefore already ‘purchased’ several good articles down through the years, which I know longer have access to.

On the other hand, I do fully support the idea of payment content on newspaper websites – because some of the best journalists I am aware of – have said it was a dumb idea to open up all content for nothing.

However, if the Sunday Business Post were really to employ some hi-technology and innovation, they might experiment with a system, akin to the music online store that I used. Built into the price of access, would be an online vault for newspaper articles attached to one’s login. That is, similar to the way I know that my music purchases from the past are all contained in an accessible music vault, I could also access any of the articles that I have purchased.

Perhaps, the admission price of the €2, would enable a customer to move have a dozen online articles into their ‘vault’ each time, so they are always accessible to the customer. I don’t know why newspapers have not be inventive enough to explore this territory. The music guys are already doing it with large downloadable MP3’s. I don’t know why it would be so difficult to do with with a webpage newspaper article.

Also, I should expect that with each print version of the Sunday Business Post, that they distribute a unique key-in access code for the online newspaper, and that it would similarly give the facility to move half a dozen articles to the vault, as one wished. Obviously, the amount of people who would take advantage of this system would be small, but no less significant.

This is the way to do a ‘pay wall’ for a newspaper, in my opinion. Not the way that newspapers are currently trying to do it. BOH.

@ Sunday Business Post,

Another way to use that unique key-in access code that would be contained in each print version of their newspaper, would be to have it set to regional areas in Ireland. The customer, could input this unique key-in code, and for all time, that edition of the Sunday Business Post would be in their ‘vault’.

The advantage of this kind of system (similar to what supermarkets and convenience stores do with ‘loyalty’ tags), is that for the first time, the print edition of the newspaper, would enable the management to view the consumption habits of their customers, and in terms of geography of sales etc. BOH.

21st February 2011

Dear Mr Corcoran

I am very aware of the strength of feeling on the subject of commercial rents and Fine Gael has addressed this subject in our manifesto as part of a drive to cut business costs by strengthing competition in sheltered sectors.

Specifically, in our manifesto we have committed to pass legislation to give all tenants the right to have their commercial rents reviewed in 2011 irrespective of any upward-only or other review clause.
Please do not not hesitate to contact me if you have any queries in this regard.

Best wishes
Yours sincerely

Sean Barrett TD

Is the crisis in governance or with governance? Depends on the perspective.

On the conflict of interest front, Senator John Whelan from what I read is one the very few politicians to have grasped an understanding of it. The others shamelessly dance around the phenomenon.

It is a fine introduction to an article on governance but I would have liked Dr Hardiman to be a little more prescriptive (what kind of committee system do polities of a similar size use? which country has the most effective committee system judged in terms of highlighting flaws in proposed legislation? and so on)

A widely held belief (though not by NH I think) is that Irish TD’s were locked in a clientelist relationship with their constituents which prevented them engaging with larger issues. However our recent experience seems to be that it was the relationships that TDs and ministers had with financial and European institutions which were the ones that did the country the most damage. It was not the clinic but the golf club where the damage was done.

Who is to know whether if TDs had been working less for their constituents that they would not have spent more time dealing with the needs of developers, bankers and the demands of EU grandiosity?

It was a very well written article and one that would encourage the student of political science to further engage their interest in the nature of political science, as it pertains to the Irish situation. A paragraph that rang particularly true in my mind, in recollection also, of the attempts of the FF/Green coalition of 2007-11, in how they structured their attempts to develop policy.

The government can set the agenda for debate and legislation and uses its majority to make sure its preferred outcomes are enacted. It is difficult for the opposition to raise questions, to challenge government decisions, or to hold it accountable when things go wrong.

As a methodology, regardless of the level of perfection that FF had brought it to, it really is showing its age in the new century. BOH.

It was not the clinic but the golf club where the damage was done.

It’s a good line Shay but I’m just not sure … the Ministers were long since cut loose from the clinics by the assignment of civil servants to do their clinic work for them (an arrangement which should have drawn more objections from our Sir Humphrey class than it did, but anyway). So where did the time freed up from the clinics go? Then I think we’re into the debate about whether the ministers were co-opted or simply over-matched. 10 years of going to Very Important Meetings to tell everyone how great the Toiger was was not good practice for what was to come. Indeed I’m struck in all the LIBOR revelations about how activist the UK government was in October 2008: constant phone calls, meetings with the banks, special reports coming in on how to lower the cost of credit. In Ireland in October 2008, DOF was twiddling its thumbs waiting for the PwC review of the bank assets to come in — long after the guarantee had been given.

A culture changes very slowly and issues such as reform are not a priority in a conservative society.

Process is boring and cannot match the level of interest when there are perceived nefarious foreign forces to blame. We love to talk but the record of running things is poor.

The level of transparency is also very poor; the available useful data on public spending is primitive and conflict of interest remains a strange concept in Ireland.

RTÉ, Ireland’s State broadcaster, sees no problem in board members pitching for work to former colleagues: “It would not be in the interest of any public broadcaster, nor the public, for independent producers of experience and skill . . . to be either barred from board service or, if appointed to a board, to be barred from seeking to maintain their business and livelihood by being disallowed from competing for programme commissions.”

When it was disclosed in 2010 by The Irish Independent that the wife of Eamonn Gilmore, Labour Party leader, had sold a two-and-a-half acre site in Galway for €525,000 to the Department of Education, a LP spokesperson said: “She is a private citizen and it is her money, not his.”

The planning tribunal wound up after 15 years, lawyers became multimillionaires and the corrupt land-rezoning system remains untouched.

Changing the power balance in the Oireachtas would help over coming decades but the main interest of members will remain at the parish-pump level for the foreseeable future.

Research resources have been improved in recent years, TDs have been given additional staff (more opportunities for family jobs) but there is no evidence of improvement in the standard of output. 37,397 Parliamentary Questions (PQs) were tabled in 2011 and Dáil Éireann registered second highest out of 18 Parliaments. The Irish figure is approximately three times the average number of questions tabled of 12,515 – – hardly a good metric of productivity.

As for civil servants standing up to ministers, again unlikely to happen and there are specialists in the area of science in enterprise agencies and in the Enterprise Department, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
The enterprise agency heads when they speak in public, it’s usually babble supporting the official line.

To borrow from ‘The Irish Mind’ fairytale, it permeates the ‘eco-system.’

How likely is it in UCD that an insider in a department would even question a pet project of a professor that is wasting public funds?

Look no further than the public science budget over 10 years of €23bn to wonder about governance: Oireachtas committee members not interested because it’s over their heads; university presidents vying for funds but showing no interest in value for money issues; State agencies supporting ministerial delusion that Ireland, without a local market, could clone a Silicon Valley where so many others have failed; tech companies and IBEC welcoming lavish funds and captured journalists dazzled by stories of Facebook, Apple etc.

@ Ernie Ball

Class warfare!

Some good news for you as you relax during these rainy months….

Sparkasse bank in Chemnitz, which was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt before the fall of the Berlin Wall, recently invited customers to vote online among 10 different images to grace its line of MasterCards. The city’s 23-foot-tall bronze bust of the 19th-century German economic philosopher, who foretold the end of capitalism, easily won over other regional options, including a palace, a castle, and a racetrack. The card features Marx’s “stern face” gazing toward the MasterCard logo, and it is proving popular well beyond the city’s limits

On class warfare, a NY Times story from the Hamptons begins:

“A woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of a black Range Rover here on Sunday afternoon and yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney, ‘Is there a V.I.P. entrance. We are V.I.P.’

@ All

The “Reform Delivery Office” says it all!

The record of the public service since the introduction of the Public Service Management Act in 1998 has been catastrophic. One would have assumed that the first conclusion that should be drawn is the necessity to re-examine the legislation in question. Instead, the public service remains bound by its legislative requirements which are based on the fundamental error of treating the public sector as a homogeneous monolith, the same error – or oversight – as is evident in the UCD study. We would not want to lose the system of relativities – even with its stultifying results – now, would we!

This general topic opened up on the thread dealing with the thundering success of Ireland in placing €500 million of short-term debt. The really worrying aspect of the continued beating about the bush, with regard to the fact that the public service needs reform commensurate with the radical nature of the crisis with which the country is confronted, is the strain it is beginning to place on society. This is evidenced by a barrage of public sector bashing which misses the essential point viz. that it is in the interest of all, public servants included, to break down the unnecessary barriers between the public and private sectors.

On the evidence of the contributions above, there is not just an unwillingness to confront this fundamental problem but a seeming unawareness of its existence.

@ All

Incidentally, apart from the political considerations, the probable explanation for the continued stasis is to be found in the following comment by Paul Haran;

“AMID ALL the criticisms of the Croke Park agreement, as well as the public service and their costs and allowances, we risk missing the obvious: the public sector is primarily about delivering.

This hardly seems radical, but today the focus is almost entirely on spending and its control. Decision-making on resources is now rigidly centralised, and while this may help keep spending down, it fails to secure the delivery of services society rightly demands”.

In short, the team was allowed to bolt and the absolute priority now, even if it is made up of badly-harnessed nags, is to rein it in. This is understandable but it should not be allowed to obscure and/or block the deeper debate that is required.


In Jan 2007 Bertie Ahern requested the OECD to make recommendations on reform; it reported in April 2008.

Then public service reform became mainly a line by line negotiation on work practices.

It doesn’t look like a productive way to implement change.

After all the focus on health delivery, there is still a significant shortage of GPs.

@michael H

After all the focus on health delivery, there is still a significant shortage of GPs.

But presumably no shortage of health policy experts who are busy writign reports on the fundamental nature of the changing practices of GPS in rural ireland, blah, blah,…

There is a huge demand for leaving cert students for medicine but there has been very little expansion of places. Instead the government pumps money into building learning centres and funding courses in engineering, computers and so forth that attract a much lower intake than the funding justifies.

So where there is a demand, the government ignores it even though there is a clear supply problem. And where there is little demand the government grants largesse even though the capacity for employment is not there. Head in backside thinking if ever.

We can talk about high level governance but our system is self-selecting for personnel who accept that they will have neither power nor accountability at a local level.
If you go into the market to buy bullocks, you do not expect to get bulls.
Our governing structure is hierarchical with no devolved power to the local level, so the first point of entry to the representative structure selects for those who will accept that they are neither responsible for what happens locally nor accountable for it.
If a farmer buys a ’stag’ bullock by accident, it will be castrated immediately it becomes awkward.
We need to look beyond reforming high level governance to ensuring that those who entered politics to improve local situations are responsible for the resources at that level and accountable directly. Only then will we be able to assess a potential representative for higher level governance.
It would not make sense to spend time designing a wonderful bull-breeding program and then stock it with bullocks.

@The Alchemist

It’s also a reminder of how anachronistic and dated our insolvency and creditor’s rights system is … a subscription publication with privileged access to public administrative processes.

Irish Governance in Crisis

So few comments should’nt that tell the interested all they want to know.

Change? Not on my watch guv.

The experiment known as irish independence has failed abjectly.

The piece is excellent. There are so many failures that come together to deliver the current stasis.

Surely the concentration of all political and fundraising power in Dublin is a big part of the mess.

The regional newspapers are an interesting insight into the political culture of regions with no power to decide anything.

@ Frank Galton

The legal system needs a “Paste special” from a legal system elsewhere that serves the people.

There are so many missing pieces of legislation.

@ Alchemist

Stubbs Gazzette is another low but there are such developments on a monthly basis these days

Comments are closed.