How ironic it would be if John Tierney, of all people, turned out to be the one who finally triggered the long-overdue realignment in Irish politics.
John, you might recall, is the man who gave us the Eyre Square project, the Poolbeg incinerator debacle and the unusable EIRCODE postal system.
The witty, urbane head of Irish Water, or so one might imagine him if he ever made a public appearance, personifies the kind of stolid, traditional local authority administrator who rose through the ranks, interview by interview, and gained promotion based on merit. It is said, a little unkindly, that he always made a point of wearing his Fáinne and his Tipperary tie-pin which can hardly have done him any harm I suppose, unless he was being interviewed by rabid Kilkenny supporters. In such cases it might be as well to leave the tie-pin in the drawer with the paper hat, the flask and the roll of tinfoil for the sandwiches.
The question is though, what sort of merit propels such administrators to the top of the administrative pile, considering how rapidly Tierney rose through the adminisphere? What do we, as a society, value above all else in our public servants?
Well, actually, we as a society expect nothing from our public servants since the majority of us have no understanding at all of what they do, how they’re appointed, what their reporting relationships are or what motivates them. The only expectations come directly from central government and this has been true almost since the beginning of our independent State when we emasculated local democracy by imposing miniature pro-consuls on each local authority in the form of the city and county managers.
Local authority managers have almost limitless powers. They are not answerable to the local elected councillors or even to the head of the overseeing government department which is currently Environment & Local Government. They answer only to the Minister of the day who until recently happened to be Big Phil “Cut to a trickle” Hogan.
The role of a local authority manager is to impose the will of the Minister at local level. That is all, because Ireland is the most centralised country in Europe and in many ways, the local authority structure is not entirely unlike the way the Soviet Union was organised. It requires considerable deference to power and at the same time a rigid adherence to rules, if you want to rise through the ranks. A healthy dose of rat-like cunning does no harm either.
Certainly, there are some mavericks with an original cast of mind who do their best to work around this awful reality and who manage to achieve things, but this is despite, not because of the Minister’s attentions. By and large, though, it does not do to be seen as a maverick with an original cast of mind if you want to climb that greasy pole while keeping your suit clean.
The centralisation of Irish public administration stands in stark contrast to the likes of Germany or Denmark, with countless local municipalities all managing their own local affairs and in the process, giving people a feeling of belonging. Big Phil, on the other hand, believed in destroying local authorities and he did so with great relish, since Big Phil comes from an extremely authoritarian wing of an already-authoritarian party.
In much the same way that cosmologists can detect the background radiation from the Big Bang at the dawn of the Universe, you could say that local authority attitudes are the tangible evidence of background radiation from our political Big Bang of 1921, an explosion that brought to power a bunch of hard-line religious ideologues intent on consolidating the grip of their own elite on the institutions of State. Kevin O’Higgins himself once remarked that he must be one of the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.
There’s something authoritarian in the Irish psyche. Give an ignorant 17-year-old straight out of school a job in the Civil Service. Put them behind a desk at their local social welfare office, and within a week they’ll be barking orders at men their fathers’ age, who just happen to have been made redundant.
This didn’t happen by accident, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere. It was a product of an infantilising process that occurred over a century and a half, a process that made the Irish people compliant, obedient and passive. When the Greeks rioted in the streets, the Irish did nothing. When the Icelanders came out banging dustbin lids, the Irish did nothing. When the French set fire to buses, the Irish did nothing.
When an Irish government gave €64 billion to the banks, the Irish did nothing, even though €34 billion of that didn’t save any bank but instead went straight into the pockets of gamblers like Roman Abramovich, who had bought at a huge discount the bonds sold off by the original bondholders and who now demanded full face value from the Irish government.
This was not government debt, yet we put up with it, because we are, as a nation, passive, compliant and obedient, or to put it another way, we display all the symptoms of long-term abuse victims.
Now, what was so different about the Irish Water uprising? I think it was simply that people could relate it to their daily lives unlike the bondholder bailout, though the water costs are minuscule compared to the burden inflicted on every adult and child in the State by that piece of criminality. Perhaps €15,000 each. It would take a lot of water bills to reach that level.
Still though, whatever about the final outcome of the water conflict, it seems to me that people have reached a turning point. For the first time in Irish history, people have stood up and said NO to a government, creating shock and dismay among those who feel entitled to govern us.
As Exhibit A, I give you Noel Coonan, a TD from Tipperary, who compared the water protesters to ISIS. The clown.
And what triggered the anger? Well, this is where John Tierney comes in again.
Finally, for once, I think the people registered the arrogance of the local authority system, as manifested in the procedures dreamed up by Tierney and his team. In full, infallible County Manager mode, Tierney ordained that everyone must supply him with their PPS number. Why? Nobody knows, perhaps not even John Tierney himself, other than the possibility that it’s in the DNA of a former local authority administrator to demand something and to issue a threat in the event that you fail to comply. (Note: Fail and comply are two great local authority words designed to intimidate you).
I think that might have been the moment when the amateur political cosmologists of Ireland first detected the Morse signals from the dawn of time. I could be wrong, but hear me out. I think that was the very first time in Irish history that people realised what a bullying, overbearing State we have created for ourselves, operated by a cadre of apparatchiks raised almost from infancy (or 17, to be more precise, when they came out of school with a fair-to-middling Leaving Cert) to regard the State as the greatest good, even to the detriment of the people.
The PPS demand is gone now, and the sky didn’t fall in, so where’s John Tierney to explain why his demand for your number was unnecessary?
Phil Hogan, before he settled himself into his fat job in Brussels, threatened the country that he’d cut their water to a trickle.
That’s gone now, and so is Big Phil. For good in both cases, one sincerely hopes.
Tierney, as befits a man used to being addressed as “Manager”, stayed remote and imperious while Phil was threatening us and while people were saying publicly that they would not give Irish Water their personal details. The only face of the company that the Irish people saw was that of Elizabeth Arnett who, I’d have to concede, is a very polished performer.
Too polished, unfortunately, for the taste of the Irish public, who didn’t like being lectured or patronised, no matter how professionally. Oddly, I haven’t seen much of Elizabeth since the whole plan fell to bits, but perhaps defending the indefensible has its limits. Perhaps not even Elizabeth Arnett’s considerable fluency and self-assurance wasn’t enough to gloss over the fact that she was speaking on behalf of one of the most ill-conceived , ineptly-imagined campaigns in world history. Not a great thing to have on your CV.
Now that the radio-telescopes of the Irish people have been switched on and pointed towards the void, I suspect they might begin to pick up a lot more of the pops and crackles rising above the background hiss of the political cosmos.
Who knows what they might hear, what political scams they might finally recognise and what ancient wrongs they might demand retribution for?
One thing is for sure. The days of listening to bluff and bluster are over and for that, we have a most unlikely hero to thank.
Take a bow, John Tierney.
Our current model of parliamentary politics clearly doesn’t work, since we have two dominant right-wing parties, almost identical to each other and with no discernible principles other than their own personal advancement. We have a flaccid Labour party fronted by pompous windbags. And we have Sinn Féin, a party that claims to be left-wing but isn’t too keen on being examined closely.
It’s time for a new way of doing things. It’s time to walk away from the infantile attitudes of the old Ireland and evolve something capable of addressing contemporary needs.
What that is, I don’t know, but those needs won’t be addressed by the tired old parties we’re currently stuck with.