Current Affairs / Economy / Irish History

A political parable for our time

One of the oldest risqué stories circulating in Ireland  has become a political parable for our time. It concerns a group of Irish explorers whose  guides mislead them so that they unwittingly enter the territory of a dreaded group of cannibalistic pygmies known as the fukarwe tribe. As darkness approaches the Irishmen are surrounded by a horde of fierce little men who leap at them unexpectedly from the long grass, yelling, waving their weapons and jumping up and down continuously.

But, just as the explorers resign themselves to death, the grasses part once more and a bearded Belgian White Father emerges saying: "Relax gentlemen, I will protect you. Despite their reputation these people will not harm you. But as you can see they are very small and the grass is very tall, so they spend their lives jumping up and down calling out, ‘where the f— are we?’"

The similarity between to-day’s Irish electorate and the pygmies is  striking. The outlook is darkening by the moment and the economic grass is very tall. But there is  one unfortunate difference – there is no  Belgian  White Father. It is tempting to simply blame a deeply unpopular  government for the state of anger and  anxiety that pervades the Republic of Ireland  currently as unemployment rises , not merely weekly, but seemingly hourly.

As a historian I would hazard a guess that anti-government feeling is running at something not far off  the levels of the civil war. In my lifetime I have never known such a disconnect between the governed and the governed. And, without a shadow of doubt , the inept government hugely deserves blame  and condemnation. However I fear the  malaise goes deeper than the effects of one bad government.  The question is: Can the Irish political system survive this crisis?

Famously that question was also posed during the 1950s in a cartoon in the Irish humorous journal  Dublin Opinion that showed Kathleen ni Houlihan  asking: “Have I a future?” In my first book, Ireland Since the Rising, published the following decade I included  an interview with the Belgian White Father of the day, the man who was motivated by the cartoon to answer the question in the affirmative, Ken Whittaker, the then Secretary of the Department of Finance. He described to me how, at the head of a group of gifted Civil Servants, he drew up a plan for economic development, that averted what at the time had seemed like inevitable collapse. What Whittaker conceived, Sean Lemass carried through.

But there’s neither a development plan, a Whittaker, nor a Sean Lemass around the Dail to-day. The situation cries out for a national government. But, after  an initial  daring initiative, as the international credit crisis struck, the move to guarantee bank depositors, the government  appears to have frozen in the headlights. It’s political nostrum would appear to be cuts, not development. It has already made an assault on the medical cards issued to over seventies and introduced tax levies. These will certainly be augmented by the findings of a report from a Committee set up to advise on pruning public expenditure, popularly known as An Bord Snip.

Psychologically and economically the people are crying out for leadership, for a plan. What they are getting is party politics and  bickerings across the floor of the Dail.  Part of the problem, like incest, is  relative. The political gene pool needs refreshment. Both the government, and the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, are heavily dependent on the children of earlier politicians. The principal Ministers, the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, and the Minister for Finance are all children of earlier members of the Dail, as are the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny and many of his deputies. Another problem is the fact that the Irish governmental system, both local and national, is too large and too expensive for such a small country.

There are one hundred and sixty six TDs from whose ranks are chosen the Ceann Comhairle, and leas Ceann Comhairle, fifteen Cabinet members, 20 Junior Ministers and 23 Dail, Committees whose chairpersons receive an additional 20,000 Euros. The tax-payers pay 10. 5 million euro for the 215 constituency and office staffs employed by Ministers to help them stay in power.  The 187 staff employed by Junior Ministers cost over eight million euro. There are sixty Senators in  the now superfluous Seanad, which to-day has  virtually no powers, and is merely an expensive hangover from the early days of statehood when the first Free State government approved of an  Upper House as a means of assuaging the fears of the former Unionists.

At Local Government level there are 1,627 County and city councillors, Borough Councillors and Town Councillors. To give an idea of the vast cost of the unwieldy system of Local Government it might be noted that in Mayo alone last year the 31 members of Mayo County Council earned and average of  €32,670 each in salary and expenses.  One gentleman’s dexterous use of the expense account provisions brought his income to over sixty thousand euro in a single year. Not for nothing was the saying coined: "Mayo God help us."

All these men and women have something in common. If you examined their well cushioned bottoms you will not find a single bayonet mark. They all put themselves forward deliberately and will fight viciously to keep their seats. The inducements to do this are great. Before the new levy on public service pay  takes effect this month the following was the basic pay, in Euro, for the Irish legislators.

€100,190 – TD

€70,133  – Senator

€202,678   – Minister and Ceann Comhairle (Dail Chairman)

€139,266   – Minister of State (Junior Minister) and Leas Ceann Comhairle (Deputy Chairman)

€257,024  – Taoiseach

€220,290  – Tanaiste

I stress basic. Veteran political correspondents assure me that some TDs have made close on a quarter of a million euro a year through claiming expenses. I am inclined to believe them.

The figures I have given do not include huge expense account items such as the fact  that Ministers are provided with free Mercedes and state paid drivers. The Irish Taoiseach is paid more than Barack Obama. The Prime Minister of oil rich Norway drives himself to work, but Irish Ministers  can massage their egos by leaving their cars at Dublin Airport and having themselves flown about the country in helicopters at tax-payers’ expense. Symbolically the door of one such helicopter fell off recently as it was taking a Minister, Martin Cullen, back to Dublin from Kerry.

It later emerged that the combined cost of the helicopter ride and of his Mercedes for the day was 8,000 euro,  roughly three quarters of  the amount paid annually to an old age pensioner. As can well be imagined the exhortations of Mr. Cullen and his colleagues to the less well off in Irish society to accept sacrifice in a spirit of patriotism do not fall on  sympathetic ears.

The number of TDs should be cut by approximately a third, the number of  Councillors by half and the Seanad should be abolished altogether, along with at least a third of the Junior Ministers. These steps would not of themselves solve the woes of The Mouse that Roared (once facetiously known as the Celtic Tiger) but they would demonstrate that the Republic possessed what it now lacks – leadership.