Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

We need loud mea culpa from FF if it is to recover

Leo Varadkar won an important political victory this week and opened up the battlefield that lies ahead. The issues to be confronted are numerous and involve all members of the Government.

They raise serious decision-making problems for the opposition parties, dividing them and, in the case of Fianna Fail, confronting them with culpability in the creation of the bonus and semi-state management cultures that are now so much against the public mood.

The people as a whole have to grapple with an economic crisis that is both national and personal. It is going to get worse and stretch ever tighter the private and public purses involved. The vast majority will have no say in how their contribution to public debt is increased. Nor will they know in advance of further raids upon their resources through new taxation. But the axe must fall and we have to think ourselves into the solving of a collective predicament.

To have an elite that floats above this is unacceptable and this has to be dismantled. We pay high salaries in the belief that they attract high performances. That should be sufficient reward in itself.

There is no case in the present climate -- if indeed there ever was in this country -- for the large bonuses that have become annual inevitabilities, assessed, judged and rewarded by the elite themselves, who benefit.

In the culture that has prevailed, and has been grossly inflated under a party in power for too long, an even more drastic approach is necessary based on a fundamental re-think by Fianna Fail as to its attitude to the changes implicit in Leo Varadkar's actions. We did not hear much from it this week.

This is quite different from the position of the other groupings in opposition. We have already the notable and outspoken courage of Shane Ross in this area of public reward, and how much it sticks in the throat of his supporters. Much of what he says is quite unarguable. We have the message equally powerfully, though from a different standpoint, coming from the left, and another version from Sinn Fein.

Bonuses are an easy part of it, amenable to legislation where they are in the public sector, or in the banks over which the State has control. Bonuses in the relatively new and vast array of semi-state bodies spawned like a virus under Fianna Fail should also be more readily and strictly controlled.

Collectively these latter cost billions and need either fundamental reform or a process by which they are dismantled and absorbed back into the full public service from which they were separated. This was done, like so much else in the State during the boom years, with little or no regard for the cautious frugal management of taxpayers' money.

Dismantling them may raise legal difficulties. They were set up, after all, in the eyes of many, to avoid Oireachtas scrutiny, opposition questioning, and possibly to be a permanent memorial to Fianna Fail's debts to its supporters.

Leo Varadkar used a workable model for the extension of the process used in respect of the 2010 bonus of €106,000 to Declan Collier of the Dublin Airport Authority. This was to lay the charge for what was done at the feet of the authority's board, telling them he would not reappoint them when their term was up, later this year. It had an immediate effect. It is not known whether assurances were given, or what they were, but if I were in Varadkar's shoes I would hold my fire on re-appointment. They should have acted earlier, and on their own initiative. This would have been a better response than capitulating to a totally justified threat from the minister.

Boards should be quaking in their shoes and we should praise the politicians who make them quake. It is not the way of boards, however, and further 'persuasions' need to become the norm rather than the exception, in this case. The crisis we are in is not being recognised by individuals in powerful positions.

It has taken time to assess the complicated structures that have governed us from outside the civil service, in the formal sense, and there will be more confrontations. It is probably the case that some form of urgent legislation strengthening the Government's hand will be necessary.

Though Fianna Fail, as a political force in the Dail, has become relatively innocuous, it is still significantly part of the system and its moral endorsement of the necessary reforms implicit in what Leo Varadkar has embarked upon, with the DAA, would be a welcome demonstration of change within that party.

So far, its attitude has been that of a frozen witness to public anger and to political action. Over the Roscommon A&E; downgrading it went back to the 'old politics' of traditional opposition, with Micheal Martin waving a letter in the Dail and saying, "You promised, you promised!"

Up to now, the Fianna Fail leader, apart from a mumbled 'Sorry, you guys!' after the election, has not indicated that the party's own horrendous mismanagement of the country's affairs needs root-and-branch reform. Fianna Fail needs to express a louder and more precise mea culpa to the Irish people.

Its political prospects will remain dim until it does this. When the political world began to tumble around its ears, back in 2008, and went on tumbling thereafter, it embarked on a seriously flawed programme of scapegoating about which I have written before, in respect of banking, NAMA and land and property development. That was not the way to cover up its faults, which were truly its own.

Micheal Martin and other figures in the party need to put away the childish opposition gestures and face up to their own part in a crisis situation, essentially of their making. They need to express the equivalent of a 'Tallaght Strategy', as Alan Dukes did, long ago. There is an off-chance that it will help them to recover a standing in the public eye.

Ignoring this approach will lead to a further decline in their popularity.