Sunday 15 July 2007

Let's leave poor Tom alone and debate the real issue

LO AND behold the Labour party are upset. "Conflict of interest," they say. Who's conflicted then? Tom Parlon former IFA leader, Minister for State at the Office of Public Works (OPW) and champion of decentralisation, that's who.

What did Tom do to incur their wrath? Well, he up and left Irish politics to take a job as director general of the Construction Industry Federation. Labour's Health spokeswoman Liz McManus believes Tom now has a "serious conflict of interest."

What has got one our country's brightest opposition politicians into such a twist? Let's try and guess in this hypothetical scenario: a former junior minister is hired by a lobby group to deal with his former government department, the Office of Public Works. The OPW buys and sells lands on behalf of the State as part of its many functions.

Our fictional former minister would be aware of lands up for grabs. Maybe our man knows things others don't. Baloney. Every local hack from Listwoel to Belmullett knows where the OPW are interested in buying or selling.

Ah yeah, says you, but with knowledge and connections our man could get preferred treatment in the sale or purchase of said lands. More baloney. The advantage of dealing in the State's physical assets is that they are sold off as a result of a rigorous tendering process. You puts in your bids and may the best man win. Besides, the minister doesn't deal with this area, he is a figurehead not a manager.

But what about influencing overall government policy? Our man is connected, knows high ranking civil servants in the OPW. Our man eats beef with ministers and all that.

Baloney. This theory ignores the culture of civil service in Ireland.

Get this straight - civil servants worry about other civil servants. They do not worry about politicians, especially ones who lost their seat. Civil servants are peer driven. They may be guilty of being conservative, of moving slowly, of giving minimal answers to Parliamentary Questions but they are not corrupt.

Remember the series Yes Minister? Most of these lads would dance around their junior minister. They are safe in the knowledge that said politician will soon be out the door, courtesy of Joe Public the voter or at the whim of the Taoiseach.

Policy is decided by the new minister and government of the day. Our lad ain't at the table anymore.

However Labour's Liz McManus has done us a service by touching on the real underbelly of this issue: the relationship between politicians and private commercial interest groups. At the heart of the matter lies the suspicion that one is indebted to the other and thus a corrupt advantage accrues.

On the opposite side is the belief that it is fair and reasonable to employ and consult with people of skill and capacity notwithstanding their political/commercial connections. In January 1993, the Labour party under Dick Spring went into government with Albert Reynolds' Fianna Fail Party.

Labour brought in a few friends with them. Programme managers they were called. Were they publicly elected? No. Did they go through a normal equal opportunities job posting process? No. Were these positions open to suitably qualified supporters of other parties? No. Were they drawn from business and other professional interest groups? Well yes they were. Were they in a position to influence government policy? Almost certainly. Were they men of integrity - absolutely.

Irish political life would be the poorer without the contribution of men like Fergus Finlay and Greg Sparks. They frequently outsmarted Fianna Fail. They were, however, allies of and appointed by Labour government ministers.

Which is more worthy of debate? A politician leaving office to go to a lobby group or someone from the commercial sector coming in to influence government policy?

Let's go back to another grand coalition. December 1994, and John Bruton leads a Labour Fine Gael and Democratic Left grouping into power. As you look at your wage slip and the tax take, think about the cost of running over 130 state bodies, most of which have political nominees on their boards.

Back then it was the three-two-one rule. On these state boards three seats went to Fine Gael, two to Labour and one to the Democratic Left, so the story goes. And yes, before you all squeal, no better boys than Fianna Fail for advisers, programme managers and make-up artists and the like.

There were some very good appointments under Labour patronage. The eminently capable Brendan Halligan, economist and Labour party veteran, was appointed to Bord na Mona. However let's reacquaint ourselves with the old health boards, "the 11 kingdoms" as they were known. I will spare Labour, and indeed all parties, the embarrassment of naming some of the gobdaws they put onto those boards.

These were boards that affected our health, quite often run by muppets with no skill other than that of brown-nosing. (There were notable exceptions like the late Toddy O'Sullivan from Cork.)

So let's leave Tom Parlon alone. Alas poor Tom has gone from fields of gold to bricks and mortar and suffered the indignity of decentralisation.

You may or may not admire Tom, but he is as straight as they come. Let's have a serious debate about lobby groups, political funding, civil appointments and the role of brokerage. But as we do, remember the less obvious spheres of influence. These lads are around a lot longer than Tom and you won't be seeing them jumping out of a haystack anytime soon.

Eamon Keane presents the Lunchtime Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Eamon Keane
Sunday Independent

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