Leaders ignore real problems as they work on looking good

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By Cormac Lucey

The garda whistleblower saga convulsed Irish politics for most of the week. At one stage, Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, told the Dáil that his party’s confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael was now “under serious strain” and it was reported yesterday that Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney warned fellow Fine Gael TDs that they needed to be ready for a general election.

As the public watched, the behaviour of our politicians over this chaotic period may have revealed more about them than they might like us to know.

The Independent Alliance called for and won support for an independent, international policing expert to carry out what it described as a thorough investigation into the wider issues of public concern on the administration, ethos and culture of the gardaí.

What a fantastic idea that was, right? In addition to the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, the Policing Authority and the Garda Ombudsman, a new expert will be appointed to tramp around garda headquarters investigating matters.And why stop there? Maybe we need an additional group to coordinate the efforts of all these experts and to schedule their visits to the Phoenix Park.

The Policing Authority could have Mondays, the Ombudsman Tuesdays, the Inspectorate Wednesdays, the Independent Alliance’s investigator could have Thursdays and our new co-ordination group could use Fridays to plan the next week’s work. Garda management could then manage the force at weekends, as a relaxing break from encounters with all the consultants sent in their direction by the political system.

It’s not as if the existing bodies haven’t already been forthright in their criticisms of the gardaí. The Inspectorate produced a 442-page report in 2015 in which it said there was no specific lead or unit for governance and driving organisational performance in the police force. It also found “an absence of effective governance, leadership and intrusive supervision needed to ensure that policy aims are actually delivered”.

Are Shane Ross and his merry men aware of that report? One would hope so, but that is besides the point. Their primary objective this week was a political one — the need to look as if they were doing something to fix the problem — rather than a managerial one, doing something to actually fix the problem or, perhaps, doing nothing and just letting someone better placed, such as the justice minster, to get on with it.

When Charles Moore completes the third volume of his magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps he may seek some light relief in the form of becoming the official biographer of Mr Ross, the most outspoken of the alliance ministers who, for many years, dished out trenchant criticism of those in power through his newspaper column. The chapter on this week might be called “Quest for Relevance”, a title that could, in fact, be applied to many events involving Mr Ross’s time in office.

Other government figures had bad weeks too. Enda Kenny’s confusion over what meetings he did and didn’t have with Katherine Zappone, the children’s minister, was frustrating and that’s before you consider his assertion that Ms Zappone met Sergeant Maurice McCabe and his wife, Lorraine, in a “private capacity”.

This was an extremely odd characterisation to use. It would be surprising if the McCabes thought they were meeting Ms Zappone as a private citizen rather than in her capacity as children’s minister and the political authority who oversees Tusla, the child and family agency, that produced a false file containing inaccurate claims of sexual crimes against Sergeant McCabe.

Still, Mr Kenny persisted with it and it may have suited him to. Whether he intended it to or not, it meant he could avoid having to explain or justify any perceived lack of curiosity as to what was said at the meeting. Did nobody — a cabinet colleague, a backbencher, a civil servant or a political adviser — not tell the taoiseach that this would seem odd? Apparently not.

The deeper problem here is that our system of government has a group of politicians at its top who sometimes appear to be more concerned with looking good than doing anything useful.

When push comes to shove, managing the optics appears to matter more than fixing the system. Short term incidents get all the attention while long term problems are neglected and allowed to fester.

Ego matters more than institutional need. We have a government in office but not in power.

Published in The Times (Ireland edition)   17 February 2017