herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

How dare McAleese lecture us on hard work and budgets

Mary McAleese has a nerve. Just as the country was digesting the news of our €50bn bank bill on Black Thursday, the President chose to deliver a lecture on the need to clamp down on underperformance in the civil service.

Coming from the most pampered public servant in the country, this would have been an insensitive message at any time -- but on a day when Brian Lenihan had already hinted at job and wage cuts for her less privileged colleagues, she really picked the wrong moment to twist the knife.

For a woman who has done her best to avoid controversy ever since she was elected in 1997 (not always successfully), McAleese's comments had a surprisingly political edge.

Addressing a conference of public service managers in the Aviva Stadium, she sternly warned that "careless" or "nasty" civil servants must be disciplined in order to provide the taxpayers with better value for money.

She also called for the creation of a performance management system to reward those who are doing a good job and root out the bad apples in the process. As an economic message, this may well have some merit.

The problem is, it's been delivered by completely the wrong messenger.

Has it escaped the President's attention that her office is a classic example of the kind of waste she is talking about?



Self-righteous

According to the most recent figures available, the annual cost of keeping the presidency going comes to a staggering €3.5m.

The sick, the elderly and the unemployed are all likely to see their incomes slashed in the forthcoming Budget -- but the Government still sees no problem in shelling out this kind of money on a single ceremonial position with no political power.

Ever since the recession broke, an increasingly self-righteous McAleese has been telling us about the personal sacrifices she is making to show solidarity with her people.

She has taken two pay cuts worth 30pc between them, started sending Christmas cards by email and even claims to walk around Aras an Uachtarain turning off unnecessary lights. That's all very well, but her reduced salary is still a considerable €240,406 -- making her one of the best-paid heads of state in the world with some of the least onerous duties.

The real wastage, however, can be found in the President's own budgets. Her office spends €278,000 a year on events such as receptions, State dinners and garden parties, €174,000 on office equipment and €127,000 on postage and communications. Amazingly, her travel bills are actually set to increase by more than 10pc this year, with €21,000 set aside for domestic trips and an incredible €109,000 for foreign visits.

Nobody suggests that the presidency should be done on the cheap, but these budgets were set at a time when the country had fooled itself into thinking that the money would never run out. Today, they look deeply inappropriate.

With at least a dozen candidates to shape up for the Aras next year, the easiest way for them to steal a march would be to suggest that the President's salary and allowances should be redesigned from scratch -- adopting the 'value-for-money' approach that McAleese is so keen to promote.

By any standards, McAleese has been a hugely popular President. She has been a great ambassador for this country, made a significant contribution to the peace process and is always warm and likeable in public.

While her comparison of unionists with Nazis showed that she has a tendency to let her mouth run away with her, she has generally carried out her duties with style and dignity. With these unusually tactless comments, however, the President has let herself down.





Appalling

Public servants are already feeling vulnerable after signing up to a Croke Park agreement that the Government may no longer be able to fulfil.

If the only way to pay off the banks is to hit teachers and nurses again, then we could be facing the appalling prospect of national strikes -- and in such an incendiary situation, presidential lectures will only add fuel to the flames.

People in glass Arases shouldn't throw stones. Mary McAleese would be well advised to stick to the touchy-feely stuff from now on -- because getting involved in economics is the one sure way to tarnish her legacy.

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