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Column: Pity Kevin Cardiff – he never signed up for public scrutiny

Cardiff’s humiliation at the EU was a rare example of political transparency – something our civil servants are far from familiar with, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

YOU HAVE TO feel sorry for poor old Kevin Cardiff all the same. So few of the individuals responsible for ramming our economy into the iceberg are brought forward to public scrutiny. For those who are the public focus of attention, the ire and Schadenfreude is all the more pronounced and intense.

Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, Fianna Fáil et al have felt the burning of public rage since the collapse came. But they’re politicians who live and die by the sword in public performances. It’s a part of their contract, if you will.

Kevin Cardiff never signed up to such a thing as public scrutiny. He’s a career civil servant with 27 years of toil in the Department of Finance, going back to the reign of Garret Fitzgerald. He is a member of the permanent government that operates above and beyond politics, and largely above and beyond even the paltry standards of transparency and accountability we see elected officials held to.

Oh sure Kevin Cardiff, as accounting officer for the Department of Finance, has to show up to parliamentary committee meetings. But his performances in parliament following the lack of accounting finesse in tracking the national debt showed us only naked contempt of the elected officials he was facing, hubris around his own performance, and no sense of sincere contrition whatsoever.

The backlash this created is likely what may have put paid to his run at a job on the European Court of Auditors. One German MEP described the unprecedented number of emails from Irish citizens demanding that Cardiff be rejected for the job.

‘One of those rare alignings of the stars’

This present saga is the result of an unusual confluence of events. One of those rare alignings of the stars: a publicly aired government screw-up and a transparent exercise in accountability outside of Irish political control.

First, the DoF miscalculated Ireland’s debt by €3.6 billion, the error having been noticed but not rectified over a long stretch of time. As Cardiff rightly says, nobody’s cash was really lost. But this showed up the DoF as a little bit less than competent. No matter, it wouldn’t be the first time. The Irish people are used to rolling their eyes in regular disappointment at the State.

Then Cardiff came before an Oireachtas committee and got thick with our elected officials while the cameras were rolling. No matter, he wouldn’t be the first person to come before such an inquiry and scoff in their faces. Chairman of then-nationalised Anglo Irish Bank, Alan Dukes, laughed at parliamentarians while repeatedly refusing to answer questions they asked of him.

Then Cardiff came before an EU committee to scrutinise his application to the Court of Auditors. No matter, said the Government and political commentators, he’ll be nodded through like almost everyone we pack off to Europe. Except, well, MEPs are a strange bunch for parliamentarians as we know them: they made a decision based on doubts about poor performance.

‘Yes to Cardiff, Yes to…’

(No matter, incidentally, says Labour MEP Proinsias de Rossa: The committee vote didn’t give the result we wanted, so we’ll ignore that and continue blithely onwards and upwards to the next vote. It almost sounds familiar. Yes to Cardiff, Yes to…)

Well what do you know it, we’ve got more democratic mileage out of German MEPs than Irish TDs were able to give us – Cardiff’s record publicly scrutinised and then rejected as unsuitable for a senior financial role in the public service (of the EU).

The entire process of Cardiff’s application to the court is a pole apart from how we appoint our senior civil servants who, ultimately, have great influence on the running of the State.

His CV and application form were made public, allowing us a good look for the first time at the qualifications of the man who runs the department with most sway over our lives.

His personal reasoning as to why he should hold the job in the EU was laid down. He listed, incidentally, key achievements in being central to our banking guarantee, the establishment of Nama, the bank bailouts and the eventual entry of the EU/ECB/IMF into Ireland. To some minds that may (just about may) make him qualified to run a Cash and Carry (with no disrespect intended to Cash and Carry managers).

Discussing the main features of sound financial management culture in any public service, he said without any apparent hint of irony that “there should be a determination to ensure financial regularity, with robust and efficient internal control and review systems in place.” Well done Kevin, that’d win you full marks in an exam.

‘Onwards the machine trundles’

There are many more Kevin Cardiffs out there, by which I mean senior and up-and-coming career civil servants who exist in an opaque world alien to mere mortals. We know that the State fails to live up to expectations on a daily basis, be it the Department of Education not knowing how many children are taught in prefabs or by fully qualified teachers; the Department of Social Protection not being able to means-test a benefit to ensure the needy get it and the well off don’t; or the Department of Health failing to protect children in HSE state care.

Yet, we rarely see the individuals responsible. And we never see them held accountable. And onwards the machine trundles. Departments fail. Their chiefs retire on six-figure pensions in their 50s. Rinse. Repeat.

Transparency and accountability go hand in hand with efficient and good government. The reason is simple and plain: When we can see who screws up and why, and they are subsequently held accountable and their organisation visibly changed, it incentivises the prevention of future screw-ups.

It’s high time that our permanent government is dragged into the light. It’s just a pity, the cynic in me says, that the transient government would fear doing it, lest they too be held to the same account.

A comfortable system.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the online electronics store Komplett.ie.

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