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Opinion: The McNulty affair shows political reform has misplaced focus

Appointing party members to state boards is actually defensible in many ways, writes Eoin O’Malley.

Eoin O'Malley

WITH THE SEANAD by-election over, the McNulty Affair might finally come to a close. But it could have an impact well beyond the pretty limited issue that it actually is. It shows in Enda Kenny either a lack of judgement or a lack of control. It might have shortened Kenny’s tenure as Taoiseach and further diminished his authority over his party – more so that any problems with Irish Water.

It also once more puts political reform in the spotlight, and yet again we come to the wrong conclusions. The episode doesn’t show Irish politics in a great light, but in the greater scheme of things this was clumsy rather than corrupt.

But the reaction to it shows that Irish politics and its political culture has in fact changed. Fifty years ago Donogh O’Malley said publicly he’d pick a Fianna Fáil man over a Fine Gaeler any day, and no one thought it anything other than a statement of the obvious. At least now we’re disgusted.

What sort of people do we want on state boards? 

It has led to calls for all sorts of controls on how people are appointed. To be sure we do want to get better people on state boards, and for those people who take their responsibilities seriously. But we are in danger of assuming that anyone with a party background is in some way tainted and unsuited to holding any public office.

Do we really want to exclude from the possibility those people who are sufficiently interested in public affairs that they’d join and be active in a political party? Those of us not in parties sometimes snootily look down on them, and wonder how anyone could subject themselves to anything as tainted as a whip or be willing to compromise on their values by accepting policies that they don’t wholly agree with.

The democratic process

But isn’t this exactly what democratic politics is about – mediating conflicting political interests? Willingness to compromise is essential to functioning politics, and should be celebrated rather than condemned as unprincipled.

Parties, especially governing parties, unlike interest groups have to take into account the different compromises essential to governing. They have to acknowledge that resources given to one group have to come at the expense of another. They need to explain that everyone can’t have everything because often our goals compete with each other.

Without reasonably cohesive parties, governing becomes more easily open to capture by vested interests.

The message is that party members are ‘sullied’

At a time when interest in normal (party) politics is at an all-time low (if we measure it in terms of membership) shouldn’t we encourage party membership? Yet the message is that party members are sullied.

We assume that these appointments are some type of reward for service to the party. But they could be a way for a party to control a public office. We doubt there is a Fine Gael approach to modern art – they love neo-Dadaism but hate that Bauhaus stuff so celebrated by Fianna Fáil! Even if there were isn’t it reasonable that the parties of government have their values represented on boards of state bodies by placing their members on them?

If we look at why ministers choose party members it is often because they want to pick someone they know and trust. Politicians know party members better, and so might feel they are a better choice than taking a punt on someone unknown to them. Ministers don’t deliberately make bad appointments. Bad appointments reflect badly on ministers, especially when the boards are important ones such as Aer Lingus or the Central Bank.

Making politics work for us 

People reasonably point out that an open competition is a better system. It certainly has significant merits. But think of some of the more important boards – membership of which is often unpaid. Many of the best people may not want to have to endure a public process, and so public competition could leave us with lower quality candidates.

In our approach to political reform we are too concerned with distrusting politics and not concerned enough with empowering it to work better for all our interests. To quote Woodrow Wilson, we are good at trying to curb executive powers ‘to the constant neglect of the art of perfecting executive methods’. Obviously these aren’t mutually exclusive. A well-monitored government tends to behave well. But can a hamstrung government govern well?

Dr Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and public policy and is chair of a new multidisciplinary Masters in Public Policy in Dublin City University. @AnMailleach

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Eoin O'Malley

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