THE APPOINTMENT OF former Ictu boss David Begg as chairman of the Pensions Authority with an election just weeks away is an extremely odd and silly move by Joan Burton.
The Tánaiste and Labour leader’s decision – which was technically made as part of her Social Protection brief – was announced on Wednesday following the weekly cabinet meeting and immediately caused a political controversy.
It’s no surprise that Shane Ross, a fierce critic of Begg’s, was among the first out of the blocks with a scathing assessment of the “bearded brother”.
Now the tabling of a motion of no confidence in Burton is sure to keep the issue in the spotlight over the next few days.
As a former union chief, it’s also no surprise that Begg is a longtime supporter of the Labour party.
Following his retirement after over a decade as secretary general of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions last year, Burton was effusive in her praise:
David has been a committed and relentlessly hard-working servant for the labour movement.
She added: “In often challenging times, David has always put first what is in best interests of the labour movement. I wish David a happy retirement. He has been and will continue to be a true champion for workers.”
But Burton’s decision comes despite all public appointments now being expected to go through the Public Appointments Service (PAS). This process was revised and beefed-up amid much fanfare in last year following the McNulty debacle of 2014.
This, you may remember, was a controversy which arose out of Arts Minister Heather Humphreys’ decision to appoint failed Fine Gael election candidate John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, just days before he was announced as the party’s nominee for a vacant Seanad seat.
The appointment was roundly criticised, particularly given that Fine Gael and Labour had pledged to stop these sort of political strokes from happening as part of the now infamous promise of a ‘democratic revolution’.
McNulty-gate generated a two-week scandal that damaged Fine Gael in the polls and led to accusations of ‘cronyism’, one of the ‘-isms’ that annoys Irish voters the most.
At the time Burton extracted an apology from Kenny for the McNulty controversy and noted that we needed to have “procedures and process which are clear to everybody” about state board appointments.
But Burton used a little-known provision under the guidelines on appointments to state boards to appoint Begg. The guidelines state that a minister can appoint board members without reference to PAS if:
The Minister has independently identified a person who is evidently and objectively highlyqualified and capable of effectively discharging the role of Chair of a State Board and who has not otherwise applied through the stateboards.ie process.
The problem is not so much Begg himself who could well be eminently qualified for this role, but that it was done in this way, without reference to PAS.
As one of Burton’s own TDs, Ciara Conway, noted yesterday:
Why have the rules in place if you’re not going to abide by them?
“I don’t understand that, even as someone in government, even as somebody in my own party. Why set a rule and then break it?” she told RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke yesterday.
Some have noted that the Tánaiste should have just put Begg through the process anyway, thus avoiding this controversy.
But using a little-known regulation gives the public the impression of there being a golden circle consistently benefiting from knowing the people that matter, even if Begg will not make a fortune from the €20,000 per year role.
As independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice put it today: “This kind of carry on is what turns people off politics and I wouldn’t blame them either.”
This evening, a senior Labour party figure admitted to us that the optics of this story are “not great” but insisted that it was “pure hypocrisy” from the opposition.
Hypocrisy or not, the cronyism allegation is being levelled at this government again at a time when Labour really could do without it. The party needs all the help it can get as the election looms and this is an own goal from Burton that could so easily have been avoided.
State board controversy: Ex-union boss says he won’t be “driven out” of new role