Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Yes Minister?

Material for thought on the role appropriate to the civil servant, based on two unfortunate incidents in my own tumultuous career.

John Kelly

John Kelly, then I think a junior minister, and for whom I had previously had the greatest respect, rang me for briefing just before he went into the Seanad to speak at a debate on Northern Ireland.

I briefed him on some economic comparisons between the North and South, which I had been monitoring for a number of years previously.

In particular, I briefed him on the "British Subsidy to Northern Ireland". The North had been surviving on income transfers from the "mainland" for a long time. These involved direct public expenditure on infrastructure such as roads and on transfers to the NI social insurance fund.

But there was also the small matter of spending on the British Army and Border Security. Now, the British had consistently maintained that the South was spending much less per head on border security than the UK, with the implication that we were harbouring and facilitating those who were attacking Northern Ireland from across the border.

This was a completely fallacious argument. They argued that security spending per head of NI population was way ahead of spending per head of the Southern population.

In consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs, I had determined that the appropriate tax base for estimating British Army security expenditure per head in NI was the UK population and not the NI population. On this basis the UK were spending only a fraction per head of what we were spending.

I explained this very carefully to Minister Kelly at which point he berated me for betraying my civil service trust and feeding him a Fianna Fáil line.

At that point I lost all respect for him. Regretfully.

Clearly he had become a bit paranoid about advice coming from a civil service which for most of its existence had soldiered under Fianna Fáil, particularly when that advice was strongly defending a national interest against that of perfidious Albion.

On this occasion I had been accused of stepping outside my role when I hadn't.

Celia calling

I was in St. Petersburg, in April 1994, not on a junket but as a necessary representative at the AGM of a bank in which the Irish State has a not insubstantial shareholding.

St. Petersburg was chaotic. Different aspects of the meeting were taking place at opposite ends of the city and communications were appalling.

A call came through from Dublin, from Drumcondra. Yes, you've guessed it. Bertie was the Minister for Finance and representing our shareholding interest in the Bank.

As a civil servant I would not normally have had anything to do with the constituency office. But, under the circumstances, I was quite prepared to facilitate contact between Dublin and St. Petersburg.

"Celia calling, can I speak to Bertie."

Now the Minister was at the other end of town and communications, as I said, were appalling. So I offered to relay any message to the Minister.

"No way", sez Celia, "Get him to call me."

So, deflated from my adventurous offer, I set about trying to contact the Minister.

I rang the Bank's administration and was told that the protocol officer was in the building where the Ministers were meeting.

So I rang him on his mobile.

Sez I "Would you ever go into the Minister's meeting and put your phone up to my Minister's ear so I can give him a message."

"No problem" sez he "but unfortunately I am now at the other end of town."

Which just goes to show how us landliners can be foxed by mobiles.

OK. So no go.

The Minister was finally got to ring Celia.

I learned afterwards that Bertie's car, in Dublin, had been stolen and it turned out that it was only recaptured some days later after a high speed chase down O'Connell St.

Anyway, on this occasion I felt I had stepped outside my proper role to facilitate some people and had been rudely put down.

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