Imagine refusing the clear direction of your boss, who tells you that he doesn’t want you to do something you know is right.
Then imagine taking on your boss’s boss, who supports the directive not to do what you think is right. Then imagine taking over an entire system of government — and fighting its lawyers for five years.
That’s what Tamara Bronckaers did – and she just won.
Before last week, few people knew her name and even fewer knew the significance of her deeds – but this former Stormont official should be revered as a heroine.
She embodies the highest standards of public service, just as those who pursued her reveal in their actions the depth of the brokenness of Northern Ireland’s public service.
dr Bronckaers worked for Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for almost two decades. With an impeccable record, she had risen to a leadership position where she uncovered two deeply troubling issues.
First, the animals suffered. At a market, sheep were left without food and water overnight. In another case, a young heifer was injured when placed in a pen with a bull. She visited the market herself and collected photo and video evidence.
But instead of allowing her to enforce the law, her boss Julian Henderson told her to stop conducting unannounced inspections. He said to her, “Tamara, if you keep going to the cattle market yourself, it’s not good for your career.”
Undaunted, she went over his head to Northern Ireland’s chief vet, Robert Huey, but found no greater sympathy.
She was in tears when he refused to even look at the evidence she had collected, telling her he personally knew the manager of the market, knew its chairman – and then made a derogatory remark about her home country of Belgium.
A labor judge sharply criticized the testimony of Dr. Huey as not “open, reliable or complete” and said Dr. Henderson was “unsatisfactory”.
The second and more important problem that Dr. Bronckaers revealed was that animals were in and out of farms but their movements were electronically erased from the traceability system used by many state veterinarians, slaughterhouses and livestock markets.
The motive for this was obvious. An animal that has moved more than four times in its lifetime makes less money to slaughter because the moves are seen as bad for animal welfare.
However, this meant cattle, unknown to many involved, moved through herds with TB – a disease which continues to spread despite hundreds of millions of pounds of public money being spent on eradicating it.
Instead of listening to her repeated requests to investigate the situation – which meant buyers were being misled and potentially fraudulent about the animals they were buying – Dr. Bronckaers expelled from public service.
This all happened more than five years ago. But even after a judge ruled in her favor seven months ago, Stormont continued to fight her.
Using taxpayers’ money, the department made the unusual decision to appeal the verdict. That could only succeed if the verdict was perverse, but it wasn’t. Two weeks ago, the civil service finally accepted the verdict and dropped its appeal.
dr Bronckaers is now to be awarded more than 1m in compensation. Not a single officer has been disciplined.
A little over a week ago, Dr. Huey — whose behavior made her realize, according to the judge, that opposition to the whistleblower was going “all the way up” — for a promotion. He introduced NI’s new Deputy Chief Vet as Dr. Henderson, the man whose behavior toward the whistleblower was most reprehensible.
This has caused consternation both inside and outside the civil service. Years after the Cash for Ash scandal exposed Stormont’s breakdown, the same shameful behavior continues.
There are honorable officials, of whom Dr. Bronckaers was one who work diligently to serve the public. But the organization they belong to has shown repeatedly that it not only accepts, but rewards, behavior that would result in suspension or dismissal in most areas of life.
If this rot cannot be cleaned up by the civil service itself, its future looks bleak. Following the Cash for Ash scandal, the DUP proposed ending the independence of Northern Ireland’s civil service since 1921 and instead placing it under Whitehall control, as in Scotland.
This change could hardly make things worse, but it would not fix this fundamentally flawed institution itself. It is easy to introduce new procedures, codes, committees and strategies.
Bureaucrats love such exercises, but they are worthless unless common sense and morality are applied to situations involving obvious misconduct.
The despicable treatment of Dr. Bronckaers is just a glimpse of a much deeper evil. This may not be just another inglorious episode for Stormont. It could be one of the last chances for public service to change.
There is a growing and quite healthy rebellion at many levels of public service. In the past week, I’ve been contacted by more officials than I can count – far more than during the cash-for-ashes scandal – who have expressed disgust at what they are witnessing.
The good officials are tired of paying for the sins of the bad guys and want to expose them.
But society also plays a role. The brave people trying to sound the alarm in the public interest should be upheld. They should be listened to and respected and not viewed as solicitors or troublemakers.
Bureaucracies far larger than Northern Ireland’s civil service have perished of vanity.
Ordinary officials can understand this, but their overlords seem unable to do so.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/there-is-something-rotten-in-the-northern-ireland-civil-service-41581130.html Something is fishy in the Northern Irish civil service