the hour comes Comes the man. Leo Varadkar returned to power this weekend. Problems galore await him. Leo’s destiny will be determined by his success or failure in coping with the twin chronic issues of health and housing; If overwhelmed by them, he is likely to face an ignominious end in 2025 when he is removed from office in a wave of popular anger. But his long-term legacy may well be the role of the Taoiseach presiding over something even deeper: the decline of Irish political standards.
eo, Ireland’s newest political Houdini, is wounded. The restored Taoiseach’s release from possible prosecution by the DPP followed threats that the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) would investigate him for an ethics violation. Sipo developed a chaotic solution. Last month his commissioners ruled – in a split three to two – that the Leo investigation was outside their jurisdiction.
Nonetheless, he is probably the first Taoiseach ever to return to office under such a cloud. He could yet prove to be a noose around the neck of a revived Fine Gael. Oddly enough, there seems to be little uneasiness about Leo’s pickles within the Fine Gael ranks. When the trough beckons, as it did this weekend, it’s foolish to disrupt the leader.
Make no mistake, Leo isn’t solely responsible for the decline in standards in public life; but he runs the risk of becoming a symbol of it. All three governing parties bear responsibility.
Today’s pressure on housing has understandably forced the entire coalition to seek short-term solutions. Last week, a well-intentioned planning law was fundamentally undermined, not only by removing citizens’ right to object, but also by a sinister little maneuver: politicians – notably the housing minister – are reappointing board members of An Bord Pleanála (ABP). Apologists for the bill insist the development will only be “temporary”. Opponents point out that income tax was once “temporary” too.
Who is right, political intervention in the planning process is suddenly acceptable in times of crisis. Hallelujah, the gates to the sins of the past are silently reopened. Under the radar of a proposed planning law, the bad habits of the last century are being restored.
Cian O’Callaghan, the vigilant Social Democrat TD for Dublin Bay North, recognized the danger. Last week he warned that the planning laws could return to the “dark old days of the late 1970s and early 1980s”. He’s right. Under the guise of a housing shortage, a fundamental change in the draft law is secretly smuggled in. Cian’s party leader, Catherine Murphy, was equally outspoken. “Under the new bill,” she explained, “the minister will still hand-pick the board members.” Warning lights are flashing.
Even before the bill was published, acceptable standards were being ruthlessly violated. Details of its contents had shamelessly leaked through the media several days before it reached Cabinet last week. The growing group of coalition leakers was working overtime. The public was softened for a controversial measure. Restrictions on the right of certain groups to challenge planning decisions would be introduced. But, possibly worse, the Planning Board, stimulated by recent controversies in ABP, was restructured in a way that politicians liked. There was no point in wasting a good scandal.
Political appointments, as now provided for in ABP, are the bane of Irish political life. Fine Gael members in Leo’s cabinet have a dismal record of installing party favorites in key positions.
Wasn’t it Leo himself who appointed an active party member, Séamus Woulfe, as Minister for Justice? Wasn’t it Simon Coveney who appointed Katherine Zappone as UN special envoy? Wasn’t it Heather Humphreys who promoted Fine Gael loyalist John McNulty to the IMMA board “on merit” to give him the qualifications for a Fine Gael Seanad candidate?
And on Fianna Fáil’s side, wasn’t it a minister named Micheál Martin who appointed ex-partner-of-the-day Celia Larkin to the National Consumer Agency’s board? Bad habits won’t change with so many of the serial killers still in office.
A major mystery remains: how could standards remain so low after Sipo was formed in 2001, ostensibly the state watchdog and enforcer of higher political ethics? Varadkar’s escape from their control has thrown the spotlight on Sipo himself. A beautiful picture does not emerge.
In a separate decision, five of the six commission members gave the Sipo Leo the green light – with one vote. A sixth member, Geraldine Feeney, did not vote. Of the five, four are ex officio officials of the state. Another is nominated by the government, namely Feeney. Former High Court Justice Garrett Sheehan will preside.
Feeney, a former Fianna Fáil senator, was elected Taoiseach following the arrival of her party leader, Micheál Martin, in 2020. She withdrew from discussions of Leo’s case because she was a lobbyist for an interested party. Her predecessor at Sipo was former Fine Gael TD Jim O’Keeffe, who was placed under a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. O’Keeffe’s predecessor was former Fianna Fáil TD Michael Smith, who received the gig under a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. There are no surprises there.
Sipo was partially politicized but almost completely emasculated. She ducked a hair’s breadth from an inquiry into Leo, but took action against a less powerful political figure, former Minister Robert Troy, after he lost office. It is better known for addressing the ills of councilors than cabinet members.
However, its own activities are anything but transparent. It prepares an annual report, but no individual annual accounts, instead burying its secrets in the ombudsman’s vote. The political candidate on his board does not have to declare his own financial interests. Questions about the fees paid to the two qualified board members last week were initially deflected with details of per diems – or per diems – of €377 per day to presiding judge Sheehan and €75 per day to titular member Geraldine Feeney fall to half of these values after 60 days in a calendar year.
I was originally told to file freedom of information requests to get all the details, but the Sipo later provided the numbers. The chair has received a total of 36,946 euros since November 2020, Feeney 8,250 euros.
The 2021 annual report shows that governments have consistently ignored Sipo calls for overdue changes to their remit.
She points out that of the 18 ethics reforms she recommended to the minister, 16 had a political answer of ‘none’.
It suits politicians to keep Sipo toothless, a token arbiter and enforcer of weak regulations. His limitations also seem to have suited the lucky Leo. But he should make sure that a weak sipo isn’t his legacy.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/new-taoiseach-leo-varadkars-political-legacy-could-be-glorious-or-ignominious-42227277.html The political legacy of the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could be glorious – or ignominious