Eddie Hobbs looks at Ireland’s powerful, unelected forces who control decision-making, upholding the status quo, and protecting their own interests at the expense of the general public, social progress, and the effective functioning of democracy
VIEWERS of the American political TV drama, House of Cards will be unsurprised by the risk of misallocation of scarce resources caused by excessive access and privilege afforded to powerful groups that comprise the Deep State — it is the stuff of human behaviour, the silent hand of soft power.
America’s Depression leader, President Roosevelt, didn’t mince his words alerting US citizens that “behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people”.
President Eisenhower’s broadcast when departing his office in 1961 named part of the Deep State: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex”.
Speaking truth to power isn’t easy, neither is it rewarding in a country like Ireland whose own version of its Deep State appears entrenched and immune from a political system that remains mired in the shoe leather of constituency clientelism, selecting every few years those best at playing the local game to the national chamber in the uncertain hope that the long-term national interest will be served.
In truth, it matters not to the Irish Deep State who controls the Dáil chamber, so long as sufficient power rests outside it to allow the organism to fulfil its primary purpose, which is to survive and thrive.
The Irish Deep State is a nexus of relationships comprised of unelected government bureaucrats, bank executives, public trade union brass, top accountancy firms, multinational corporations, IBEC, agencies like RTÉ, regulators and quangos and is defended by an outer circle of those most dependent on it.
You certainly won’t hear about it on the State broadcaster nor among the panels stuffed with net takers, university lecturers for the most part, who find it hard to accept their role in a Deep State which stood by while the worst parts of the last depression were privatised, namely the job losses and emigration that devastated the indigenous Irish economy and emaciated its private working poor and most indebted.
You won’t hear President Higgins name it and neither, sadly, are you likely to hear it in a media nervous of a litigious billionaire, nor among Ireland’s conventional political classes who live in perpetual fear of upsetting it. But it’s there in plain sight, just follow the money, power and privileges:
- Despite causing social devastation, the surviving bank officer class leaned over the shoulders of Government and ensured that the Insolvency Act maintained the chronic imbalance between creditor and debtor, ensnaring tens of thousands of Irish workers in open-ended stress while many of the most powerful got write-downs and, some, salaries.
- Trade unions which ought to be principally fighting for the weakest and most vulnerable to exploitation by pernicious private sector employers, crossed to the Deep State lured by gains from ‘Benchmarking’ for which no notes exist, in deals linking their personal remuneration to the top echelons of the Civil Service and which are a multiple of those of ordinary workers.
In the last round, the drawbridge was pulled up, with open pricing against new teachers, for example. It’s why (and, despite constant demonisation) I’ve consistently named public sector trade unions, a price-fixing cartel.
- Despite linking the dismantling of the last remnants of protectionism in the professions to the conditions of Ireland’s controversial bailout, the legal profession escaped the fulsome reforms that accompanied the removal of protective barriers in all others.
There is to be no fall in Ireland’s very high legal costs, leaving barriers for many consumers elevated. FOI requests reveal evidence of official lobbying by the Bar Council and Law Society but there will be no trace of the impact of the galvanised efforts of its most powerful members.
- Irish society is within two decades of a chronic social crisis characterised by retirement apartheid as most of the private workforce face retirement poverty. The unfunded pension debt in the social insurance scheme is €324 billion but remains unspoken among the political class because to do so means grasping the nettle of the €100bn in the public sector scheme debt, the reform of which would most threaten the top echelons including long-serving senior politicians whose retirement benefits run into several millions and rank as the largest asset on their balance sheet.
- No clearer example exists of the Deep State than the manner through which the early retirement scheme was fattened with benefits during the worst hours of Ireland’s depression and then immunised from taxation on its biggest pensions by ensuring the economic cost was understated and matched by free life cover to pay off Revenue debt on premature death for anyone unfortunate to be caught. Meanwhile over €2bn was appropriated from private pensions, by threatening the guardians, pension trustees, with daily fines of €380 for any delays.
- Adjusting for its youthful population, Ireland’s spending on health relative to GNP is among the highest in Europe, with some of the worst outcomes. It’s not just about money. Eleven years after forming the HSE, it still has no centralised HR system or digitised patient files and over 50 different invoice systems — who’d stand to lose?
Bending to internal interests, the Government allowed the HSE a second outing to compress the huge National Children’s Hospital into the wrong location, the latest at St James expected to cost over €800m for which the Irish people could get both a children’s and a maternity hospital co-locating at the vast green field Connolly Hospital site, off the M50.
- The 31st Dáil elected on the promise of reform, delivered the largest state agency since the HSE, with no efficiencies and conceived in a room comprising 33 local councils, trade union chiefs and the Minister for the Environment, a meeting without notes, the template for which was set by Benchmarking.
Irish Water is a shambles, rejected by the Irish people whose ownership of water, like all natural resources, was alienated in the 1937 Constitution by de Valera when he took ownership of it to the State and prevented the Irish people from challenging its guardianship through their courts which is why there are protests on the streets.
- The attitude, especially to whistleblowers, those within the gardaí, exposed the cultural reflex in favour of secrecy and protection, behind which the Deep State gets its work done. The opposite is a culture of openness, engagement, accountability and a strongly independent, free-thinking press.
These, among many other reasons, are why I deem Irish democracy to be captive both externally, by EU rules and a credit market for highly indebted countries and, internally. It is evidently weak and chatter about breakthroughs driven by arithmetic following the general election lacks credibility.
Government of the Irish people, by the Irish people, for the Irish people, cannot properly exist, outside of short general election windows, without a polar shift in power, pushing down to local government and communities, empowering Dáil committees and replacing Punch and Judy politics with collegiate engagement and open debate, that depoliticises budget setting in particular.
The answer to balancing Deep State power is deep access, transparency, and accountability. Government in the sunshine, led by a fully modernised public sector energised by fresh leaders running teams driven by performance and not dampened by the secrecy, obduracy and conservativeness of an Edwardian legacy, where longevity and not merit is most treasured.
Meanwhile, to take the posturing, opinion and guesswork out of social progress, it ought to be measured at grassroots across a range of outcomes like literacy, education, health, crime detection and equality. These measures of social impacts could feed into a single annual measurement of social progress so that we do not stumble forward venerating GDP, praying for its trickle down, but instead utilise our best experts to depoliticise the debate by scientifically reporting to the Irish people how well or otherwise we are translating economic activity into a range of social outcomes.
An annual Social Progress Index can inform healthy debate about how tax transfers ought to be best weighted, using left of centre or right of centre policies — whatever works best.