GERARD HOWLIN: A refuge from accountability and a bulwark against transparency

Robert Watt, secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, made headlines last week when he appeared first before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and then the finance and public expenditure committee on the same day. The issue, of course, was the National Children’s Hospital.

The headline was about the mandarin and the “mob”. Watt was too candid in private and overheard. Regrettably, the hospital overspend is spilt milk. Watt’s aside, if entertaining, is flotsam. The substantive issue, give or take a billion euro, is the fractious interface between senior civil servants and politicians, especially in Oireachtas committees. The underlying structural flaw isn’t our public procurement systems.

It’s the enveloping architecture intended to enable civil servants support elected politicians, and then account to them. An untold joke of Irish politics amid constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies and endless conversations about constitutional referenda, many unsought, is that the single instrument of far greater importance than most constitutional clauses, the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 remains undisturbed.

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