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Consultants controversy proves there’s always a bit of a bad taste in the water

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World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

The controversy that has arisen over the €50 million spent by Irish Water on consultants in the first year of its operation follows a long – if not particularly distinguished – tradition in Irish political life.

During the long tenure of the Fianna Fáil-led Government that lasted three terms, there were a number of similar situations that arose.

Remember the Bertie Bowl? That was never a humble project to begin with – a new national stadium would be the legacy that Bertie Ahern would leave to posterity – but what modesty was attached to it at the start soon disappeared. Within months the overall costs of the project was being ratcheted up from a few hundred million and soon talked turned to the 80,000 capacity stadium costing anything up to €1 billion.

When politicians and journalists began probing the detail, it emerged that consultants to the project were being paid enormous fees. A feature of their contracts was that the more the project cost they more they would make.

Some of the people who were centrally involved with the project included people who could loosely come within the category of ‘golden circle’, a group of people favoured by Government.

Some €43 million had already been spent before the scheme was abandoned in 2002, with the Government rowing back and announcing two more modest projects – the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road and the national sports campus in Abbotstown.

Then in Fianna Fáil’s second term we had PPARs. That experience has strong resonances now. A little like Irish Water, or Uisce Eireann, it was a case of a new body being created and amalgamating other bodies. In this case, it was the HSE which was taking over the functions of 11 regional health boards.PPARS was an attempt to take the 11 separate payrolls and human resource functions and centralise them.

Look, such an undertaking is no cakewalk. Nobody even knew at that stage how many people were employed in the health services. Was it 100,000 or 140,000 employees?  And every health board had different pay rates, different grades, different holiday arrangements, overtime arrangements and local agreements. And all of the health boards used different payroll and computer systems. So trying to amalgamate all that was never going to be easy.

But then outside companies were brought in to give advice and suddenly there was rampant spread of consultant-itis.  The job of work became ‘change management’ and the costs began to ramp up, from an initial €9 million to €140m when the scheme became the subject of public scrutiny in 2005, and hit the buffers. A few years later, and behind the scenes, the scheme was resuscitated under a new title and its costs had risen to €200m by 2011.

The one that came to be most damaging politically was e-voting. Martin Cullen, then Minister for the Environment, announced in 2004 that we were getting rid of the peann luaidhe and ballot paper, and all voting in future would be done electronically. Before you could say ‘but is this good for democracy?’ he had gone off and bought the machines and software and the devil and all.

But then a concerned group of computer experts did a forensic examination of the software and uncovered some problems – the e-voting equivalent of the hanging chads. There was no paper trail for one and therefore no completely transparent way of verifying that the computers were counting votes correctly when an audit was conducted.

To cut a long story short, the project itself was postponed pending a review and was eventually shelved. In the meantime, the computers for casting votes were stored around the country. That created its own controversy with questions being asked about how certain individuals in certain places got the contracts for storing the computers, as well as the amount that some of them charged.

The overall cost amounted to €50 million before it was all called to a halt. By that time Cullen had moved on to another ministry and eventually to early retirement.

Connacht Tribune

Politics and law have been entwined through the ages

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Seamus Woulfe...at the centre of latest storm.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

I remember when I was a kid there was an Irish rugby tour to apartheid South Africa which caused a huge furore, including a (if I remember correctly) a shouty row on The Late Late Show. One of the arguments used by those favouring the tour was: “Sports and politics should not mix.”

It went down well as a sound bite but was a nonsense; the reality is that politics mixes with everything, including sports. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.

Politicians make decisions over how sport is funded, how it is governed and regulated (look at the recent row over John Delaney’s tenure), and sometimes when it can be played.

All sports organisations have their own internal politics which can be more vicious than the stuff that goes on in Leinster House. And political parties have long ago discovered the benefits of putting a high profile former sportsperson up as a candidate.

Which brings us onto the bigger issue: the separation of powers in the State. Our Constitution draws out a relationship between the three arms of State – the Executive (government), Judiciary and Parliament (the Oireachtas). The impression that has been handed down to us is they are three goldfish in different bowls, all swimming, but in different waters.

It just doesn’t work out like that in real life. For one, for most of the history of the State, parliament has essentially been a chattel of government, with no real separate powers of its own.

In recent years, with less stable majorities for government than in the past, that relationship has changed – but parliament is still very much subservient to central Government.

It’s not just lip service when it comes to relationships with the legal establishment. There is an effort to assert that they operate in separate spheres but real life often intrudes – it’s more or less impossible to maintain the divide, unless you do it artificially.

For one, it is politicians who appoint judges, not other judges. Now, of course, judges have a say in it. There is the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) which assesses the merits of lawyers who are not yet judges.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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Connacht Tribune

Biden brings normality back to world’s most powerful office

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US President-elect Joe Biden celebrates his victory with his wife Jill and his Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

I did not want to make the same mistake I made four years ago. Then I stayed up until about 1.30am and it looked like it was going okay for Hillary Clinton in Florida. So I said to myself, that big buffoon is done for. When I woke up the next morning Donald Trump was the President of the United States. He had somehow managed to win Florida and dismantled the Blue Wall of Democrat States in the Mid-West by taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

This time I stayed up until 4.30 in the morning. And that was a mistake too. For the picture was as unclear then as it was 12 hours later.

It was too close to call but already commentators were talking of a red mirage; most on-the-day voters plumped for Trump but early voters – whose votes were counted last – had steered very sharply towards Joe Biden.

It was historic. It’s really hard to knock out an incumbent president seeking a second term. It had been done only eight times before that in two and a half centuries.

Was it his inept handling of Covid-19? Had people grown sick of his vanity and his self-serving boasts? Did this natural disruption just cause too much turmoil and uncertainty in people’s lives? Did his partisan views, that red-mist madness, repel more than it attracted?

Well, the evidence is in the poll. The answer to all those questions is yes. To me, the outcome was clear. Biden won the popular votes. He also won the electoral colleges.

The majority was small and reflects a very divided society. Trump is the champion of rural, less educated, blue collar white, conservative, Hispanic and white America. Biden is popular among the middle classes, the urbanites, the better educated, and black voters.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app

The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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Connacht Tribune

Leo has to take his medicine after debacle over leak to GPs

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Words of comfort...it's a big week for Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and US President Donald Trump.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

It’s the first week in quite a while that Covid-19 has been knocked from the top slot in politics by other events and controversies. For it to happen, it’s taken no less than polling day in a US presidential election (which we will come back to later) and Leo Varadkar getting snared in a trap of his own making. With friends like his who needs enemies?

What has played out over a few days this week in the Dáil is a procession or ritual that has become familiar to anyone who knows how our form of parliamentary politics works.

A political storm erupts involving an office holder.

Government colleagues rush in to defend the Minister.

Opposition TDs rifle the thesaurus entries for ‘scandal’ and ‘outrage’.

The Minister makes a statement in the Dáil.

If it is immediately serious – corruption, a blatant lie, bullying or harassment, a serious breach of a law or code – the Minister is a goner.

If it is less so, the Minister will survive with his or her reputation diminished.

Unless of course, there is more and the Minister can’t just draw a line under it. If they accumulate headlines over a week, that also spells curtains.

We have seen Ministers like Alan Shatter, Frances Fitzgerald, Barry Cowen and Denis Naughten fall on their swords.

At this vantage point ahead of the Dáil debate, it looks like there is zero possibility that Varadkar will resign; he’s going to ship political damage though, that’s for sure.

For one, his apology needs to be a bit more contrite than the mealy-mouthed explanation at the weekend that his manner of dealing with it “could have been better”.

There was an embarrassment of Fine Gael Ministers (all five senior Ministers plus a couple of junior ministers) falling over themselves this week to defend the Tánaiste’s honour.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app

The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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