Appointments to Public Bodies should be based on merit, not political connections

Last night in the Seanad, Senator Shane Ross put forward his Appointments to Public Bodies Bill 2009 for discussion. The Bill is the same Bill that was introduced by Senator Dan Boyle in the Dail in 2007, when the Green Party were in Opposition but Senator Boyle said that he could not vote for the Bill without the support of Fianna Fáil - something he failed to get. I spoke on the issue and below is my contribution:

As I listened to Senator Dan Boyle speaking on this topic, it occurred to me that greater love for, or adherence to, a Government hath no man than to vote against a Bill he authored. That is the position the Senator finds himself in this evening. I have previously heard him try to spread the blame for this problem by saying that everybody has engaged in these practices since time immemorial. While I do not accept that is true, for the sake of argument I will accept for the moment that abuses of this nature have been perpetrated by parties other than the Fianna Fáil Party. Even if that were the case, Senator Boyle must admit he is in a position to address it. He has told us this evening, in a roundabout sort of way, that he cannot get the Fianna Fáil Party to agree to support the Bill proposed by Senator Shane Ross. That is manifest. Senator Boyle has told us that he continues to agree with the contents of the legislation, but cannot persuade his colleagues to agree to it. That is precisely what has occurred. The Senator has pointed to the marginal references to this issue in the programme for Government, but unfortunately that does not meet the point he made when he correctly advocated this legislation some years ago. Senator Ross and others have quoted liberally from what Senator Boyle said on that occasion.

I agree with and welcome this Bill. I congratulate Senator Ross on pursuing this important initiative. He is right when he says there needs to be far greater accountability at the heart of our system. I distinguish to some extent between accountability and transparency. We certainly need much more of the former. It would probably be more difficult for us to achieve accountability although we should strive for it, but transparency can be achieved much more quickly and very easily. Even if there is no measure requiring an appointee to a public body to account for himself to an Oireachtas committee, although this should be an objective, there should at least be some transparency so as to find out who are the candidates. We should find out their qualifications and the basis on which they are appointed to any given public body.

I do not believe political participation or involvement in a political party, irrespective of which party, should operate as a bar to selfless and honourable service on a public body in the public interest. It clearly does not do so. The problem, suspicion and, in many cases, the reality is that people are appointed to public bodies not because of their merit, which may exist, but because of their political connections. That is the difficulty that arises. If Members on the opposite side of the House believe this is more a perception than a reality, they are incorrect because there are so many examples of patronage in public appointments. I have witnessed many cases personally, as have colleagues.

Even if patronage were more a perception than a reality, why could we not achieve the transparency the Bill seeks? If the Members opposite believe it is all exaggerated – Senator Ivor Callely is upset about people talking about patronage and believes there is none, apparently – we should ascertain whether they are correct. Let us have basic transparency of the kind advocated by Senator Ross and others. They advocated that individuals should appear before responsible committees of the Oireachtas to answer questions. What is wrong with a question-and-answer session? While the committee would not make the appointment, it would serve as a public forum allowing us to see who the candidates are and determine their views, merit, background and thinking on the issues germane to the appointment to be made. That can do no harm whatever and can only open public debate and do a service to the public.

In the legal profession and across the system, one hears certain phrases all the time. Members can say or pretend in the House that patronage does not occur but we know how the spoils of war are divided in this country. By “spoils of war”, I mean the spoils of political war. People get appointed to bodies because of their political background and Senator Phelan should note that people get appointed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal because of their political connections. This is absolutely the case and the dogs on the street know it. I am not saying people of merit do not get appointed to the tribunal. I practise before the tribunal. People of very considerable merit get appointed to it but one must ask whether they are being appointed because of their merit or their political background. We need a system whereby this can be addressed and in which there is public confidence.

Implementing such a system does not mean people will be excluded because they have particular politics. People are entitled to have politics and should not be excluded because of having a trade union background. Reference was made to trade union fat cats and employer fat cats in the debate on FÁS and it was implied they should not be appointed to boards. I found much of this argumentation to be quite excessive and, in many cases, not justified by the reality that many appointees, including trade union representatives, with whom I am familiar, and employer representatives are very fine, honourable people who have performed extremely well on public bodies. However, the honourable ones among them – I would say they are all honourable – would and should welcome an opportunity to have a public forum at which they could be questioned by Members of the Oireachtas on their involvement and expertise in the area in question, and their views on major topical political issues germane to the body to which they are appointed.

It is time this sort of legislation was introduced. There is a need to eradicate any element of patronage, as implied in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill. This is absolutely true and I do not know why any Senator should be so upset by this being at the heart of the legislation. I am glad Senator Boyle still aspires to introducing such legislation and it is a pity he cannot, on this occasion, persuade his colleagues in Fianna Fáil to agree.