Burgess held a Champagne Fucking Party, Watt, Who the Fuck is Watt? I say to Barry Cowen Today, May Day, you were Shafted, so was Calleary, look at the Polls today, Barry, do what Marc McSharry Did, Get the Fuck out now, it may Save your Seat? Leo under Criminal DPP Investigation, and Laughing away, and Martin, licking his Ass, Barry FF has lost its Identity. Burgess gets promoted, and Barry gets Screwed, along with Big Phil? Why, now there is the Question, then there is Muppet Donnelly, the Convert?

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Extra.ie

John Lee: Top civil servants have too much power to think they can remain untouchable

1st May 2022

Taoiseach Micheál Martin finished his press conference at the Irish Embassy and spoke with us amiably about the looming rugby clash with England at Twickenham. Mr Martin was scheduled to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the bowels of the stadium before the England v Ireland Six Nation’s finale.

Then I politely asked him for a lift. He seemed to think I was joking. A helpful civil servant had just told me that Twickenham was a notoriously difficult trip from Central London.

I know these gigs, I’ve been all over the world with five Taoisigh, there would be five or six people carriers full of civil servants going there. I approached three civil servants in the Irish Embassy about a lift. Prior to the press conference they had been attentive.

Now? They were as cold as a cad to a scorned lover. Furtively they avoided direct eye contact but all gave the same answer: no.

I walked forlornly out onto Grosvenor Place and looked from the bare, unforgiving rear wall of Buckingham Palace towards Grosvenor Gardens. What did I see?

A type of man coming towards me with a vaguely shambling gait and a splay-footed walk: An Irishman! One intuitively recognises another, even from 300 yards. As he came closer into view, I definitely knew who it was! A very senior civil servant with great power. This man I knew well, surely he could get me to Twickenham. After a brief exchange he responded, ‘Ah Jaysus no, sure I’m only an observer here.’

On something as trivial as giving a fellow Irishman a lift across town our civil service displayed a fatal flaw. If it had been officially directed, in triplicate or whatever, that the press corps should be given transport, it would have been done. However, it hadn’t been directed so flexible thinking or rule-bending was, as Sean Ryder might say ‘twisting their melons’.

In gentler times of less probity, civil servants’ commitment to dogma worked. There wasn’t great scrutiny and little real questioning of their pay and conditions.

But the pandemic and its aftermath shoved senior civil servants into the spotlight. The perceptive ones could see the jeopardy for their gilded cage. The less perceptive haven’t. Suddenly everyone is aware of the immense power they hold over our lives. And now, after investigations by our newspaper, we are aware of how much they earn respective to senior politicians.

Extraordinarily, more than 100 of the country’s highest paid civil servants earn more than the Cabinet ministers they report to.

Even the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, are financially outgunned by 36 secretaries general, seven deputy secretaries general and the ambassador to France Niall Burgess. The newly released figures show 116 mandarins at the top of the pay league – who are virtually unknown to the wider public – enjoy higher salaries than their political masters.

These include 36 civil servant chiefs paid at the secretary general rate, which starts at €205,640 and goes up to just under €300,000. The Taoiseach earns €187,011 and the Tánaiste earns €172,263.

And they include a further seven deputy secretaries general who earn €187,858 and 73 assistant secretaries general who are paid between €145,283, €151,885; €159,042 and €166,194. A Cabinet minister earns €158,129.

Power, in the political sphere, is a fickle mistress. But not if you’re a civil servant. Politicians must first achieve something substantial.

They must be elected by thousands of voters to reach the Dáil. It takes unique individuals to make it to Leinster House. If a TD underperforms, or if the unpredictable political winds blow ill, they lose their seat. And they must climb what Benjamin Disraeli called the greasy pole.

Already in this Government we have seen how Cabinet minister’s must meet a pitiless standard. If you are a politician and you were caught up in a furore over alleged Covid breaches, you’ll be forced to resign, as was former Agriculture minister Dara Calleary.

If as yet unsubstantiated additional claims emerge along with an undeniable historic drink-driving charge, as in Barry Cowen’s case, you’re sacked.

However, if you are an unelected secretary general at a department (and one of those on far more money than the Taoiseach), like Niall Burgess was, and you publish photographic evidence of your participation in a champagne party in breach of Level Five lockdown restrictions what are the repercussions? None.

Burgess’s move to one of the jewels in the diplomatic corps, our Ambassador in Paris, was secured. Even B civil servants charged by the Garda with alcohol-fuelled crimes in taxis don’t face punishment. This newspaper revealed a few years back that a woman working at the Department of An Taoiseach was arrested. Her charges were struck out and she remains in a prestigious civil service position.

Civil servants have incredible power, more awe-inspiring than that wielded by politicians.

The whole affair of the secretary general of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, allocating millions in funding to give another civil servant, Dr Tony Holohan, a secondment to academia surprised even a hoary old sea dog like me.

I did not know such power, to allocate millions without political oversight, was casually granted to civil servants. During the pandemic we saw Nphet civil servants could shut down our entire economy, our places of worship, centres of social interaction and our sports fields.

If they are mistaken, these mandarins don’t face the sack or even discipline. None of these luxuries apply to those of us in the private sector. I have many friends and contacts in the civil service, most of them are diligent, hard-working people, often on modest pay. The many are being sullied by the few.

And things are changing in the lower levels of the public service. Witness the number of gardaí who are suspended or have faced criminal charges in recent years. It is difficult to imagine a State-paid, State-employed garda being photographed breaking Covid restrictions and getting away with it.

With all the benefits of high pay and unassailable fixity of employment tenure, one temptation was denied the civil servant: fame.

There was a tradition that civil servants could not speak to the media or express opinions outside strict communications structures.

Again, Dr Holohan and fellow Nphet members exploded this quaint convention. Other senior civil servants have Twitter accounts, and they make public statements that are unscreened by politicians. Some have public disagreements with politicians in pubs.

For all this we could expect that when a civil servant is asked to attend an Oireachtas Committee staffed with the elected representatives that they would show up.

Now secretaries general like Mr Watt fight even this, and choose which ones to attend.

On that rugby Saturday had my civil servant friend pondered more probingly (some) of those living beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace across the road he might have learned some lessons.

At the end of World War I King George V had offered to give his cousin Czar Nicholas II, and his family, asylum from the Bolsheviks.

King George’s civil servants told him accepting a known despot into his home could invite Socialist defenestration of the Crown. He cancelled the warship and left the Romanovs to a firing squad. He did what he had to do to survive.

Like the Prince Andrew generation, our civil service’s survival instincts have withered.

The senior civil service here is as twisted and dysfunctional as an absolute monarchy. Decades of consequence-free extravagant living, unfettered by the democratic constraint living without fear of censure for failure led to this.

The leftist populists are coming. They will cut pay, impose performance measures, they will sack.

Senior civil servants could, if they were as clever as they would claim, move on their own pay. They would show they have shame. But absolute power? It poisons the collective mind and abolishes self-doubt. The adherence to it will finish with destruction.


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