The first test for Kenny

THE PUBLICATION of the Moriarty report’s findings presented the new Taoiseach and the new Government with their first opportunity to demonstrate to voters that political credibility, accountability, transparency and political reform are real issues on their agenda.

This was the first test of Enda Kenny’s leadership and the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition’s commitment to really change the political system. There is no silver bullet to restore faith in Government and politics. Decades of confirmed abuses and dodgy dealings have soured public perception and it will take many years to put it right.

But, within the confines of being only a couple of weeks in office, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has promised to return a moral code to public life; to end corporate donations, introduce greater transparency in Government decision-making and provide a more substantive role for the Dáil and the Opposition parties. These are progressive measures. But a fundamental change in how government policy is formed and directed will be required to give effect to that commitment.

The Cabinet has directed relevant departments to provide advice within four weeks on how the recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal can be implemented. It has referred that document to the Garda Commissioner, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Revenue Commissioners. And it has pledged to implement the most comprehensive political reforms in 80 years.

Mr Kenny has made a good start in unpromising circumstances. The Moriarty report focused attention on covert political dealings involving former minister Michael Lowry and on Fine Gael’s attempt to hide a $50,000 political donation. Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin made full use of the disclosures involved; referred to Fine Gael’s recovery from insolvency and demanded further answers.

So far, so predictable. Then Sinn Féin tabled a motion of censure in Mr Lowry. Fianna Fáil clamoured to catch up and, mindful of their role in supporting a censure motion involving the late Liam Lawlor some years ago, Fine Gael and the Labour Party agreed to call for his voluntary resignation. All accepted that Mr Lowry would ignore the demand – as Mr Lawlor had done – but they decided to proceed with the motion today.

The Taoiseach’s undertaking to specify, in law, the separate responsibilities of ministers and senior civil servants is an advance. But the decision-making process itself must be reformed to clarify policy goals and to establish mechanisms that will measure both inputs and effective outcomes. Oireachtas assessments of government projects focus only on whether public funds have been wasted, not on whether programmes have been beneficial to society or have delivered on their objectives. When Dáil committees receive the power to investigate such matters and civil servants are permitted to answer questions relating to policy, accountability at ministerial level will begin to mean something. This Government has a far-reaching reform agenda but it must deliver quickly on what it says.