Sometimes it is worth noting the obvious: The Government was under no obligation, yesterday, to announce the appointment of former HSE Supremo Paul Reid as chairman of the citizen’s assembly on drug policy. They did not have to do it. There are almost five million people in the Republic of Ireland, meaning that the Government had almost five million other options.
A previously unheard-of civil servant, for example. A random academic. Heck, they could have shocked the world entirely and appointed someone from the private sector – a leading lawyer, or maybe an ex-President of the GAA or some other voluntary body. Failing all that, they could have picked a random person from the phone book.
They had many options. They went with Paul Reid. If you wanted to annoy the public, you could not do much better.
Paul Reid was, of course, paid a salary in the hundreds of thousands of euros in return for leading the HSE over a period of three years. He then resigned early, bringing a troubled term of office to a close, but taking with him a substantial pension entitlement. Now, less than six months after leaving the HSE, the Government has awarded him with a new post. One might be forgiven for thinking that the Government considers it essential that Mr. Reid should have, at all times, a prominent post.
If you took a poll of the public on that question, I am not sure they would agree.
And yet this is a pattern: For some reason, after Katharine Zappone lost her Dáil seat at the last election, Fine Gael in particular seemed to consider it essential that she be chosen to represent Ireland at the United Nations, despite the fact that the Irish people themselves had just made clear that they did not wish her to represent them in Dublin, let alone New York. A person with even average political instincts could have seen that such an appointment would be unpopular, but the Government ploughed on regardless, until such time as the appointment became untenable.
One might be forgiven for thinking that when you reach a particular level in Ireland, it is not truly possible to fail in any direction except upwards, or, at best, sideways. Mr. Reid was a not particularly inspiring head honcho at the HSE, and yet here he is, getting another post from Government.
When politicians are in office for too long, there is a tendency to forget who it is that they work for.
The Taoiseach, I would argue, is a good example of the phenomenon: He has been in the Government consistently, without a break, since 2011. He is entering his twelfth year as a Minister. At this stage, it is a certainty that he knows and relates to civil servants and people within the Governing class of the country much more than he knows or relates to many of his own constituents. There is a good case to be made that when you are in the same job for long enough, you become institutionalised. You start to see your job – if that job is politics – as being to represent the civil service to the country, rather than control the civil service on behalf of the country.
I would feel fairly confident in writing that the Leo Varadkar of 2010 or 2008 would have condemned this appointment, or at least criticised it, in fairly strong terms. I do not know, but I suspect, that he might well have called it cronyism. He might have asked questions about the appointment process. He might have talked about the culture in politics of being seen to reward friends, and about how Fine Gael would do things differently.
But that Leo Varadkar is gone. In his place, we have a Taoiseach who is passionate about nothing so much as he is passionate about defending the state and those who work for it, and who seems often to consider himself not so much master of the permanent bureaucracy, but rather as servant of it. When you get to that point, appointing Paul Reid to another job doesn’t just seem like a good idea, it almost seems like the only logical idea. And if the voters complain, well, they just don’t understand the process, do they?
All of this can of course be defended, if it is questioned at all. Fair process, exhaustive search for the best candidate, Paul Reid’s long record of collegiality, and etc, and etc, and etc.
But just because something can be defended, that does not make it a good or a sharp political idea. When a growing section of the population sees our politicians and our government as a single, indistinguishable clique committed to common interests ahead of the public interest, that’s an impression one should seek to combat, not reinforce.
But in the end, they’re too far gone. So Paul Reid got another job, because of course he did. And if you think there’s anything wrong with that, well, you’re either a conspiracy theorist, or you just don’t understand.