As things get better, ghosts from the past appear and disturb the party. House prices increase, new houses are building, the property supplements fatten and the possibility of another bubble haunts us. The Troika depart the stage, its script completed. The burden of choice and the weight of responsibility descend on the government and their civil servants who must write the script for the next act. No wonder they are nervous, no wonder they seek the assistance of an ‘a forum on issues like pay, taxation, and what services can be afforded’, no wonder the bien–pensants are troubled by – horror of horrors – the ghost of social partnership. No! No! We are assured, this is not Social Partnership. Social Partnership was a bad thing. This is a good thing.
Now, whether it was a good or a bad thing, social partnership, Irish style, was a failure. Whether the proposed forum is a good or bad thing depends on how we understand the problem it proposes to solve. Given the record of this government it is not surprising that the problem is hardly analysed and barely discussed. Once the problem is stated it is immediately clear that while social partnership was an inadequate solution, the proposed forum barely counts as one.
The problem is not a new one. It is as old as politics. It is encapsulated in this examination question, variants of which featured regularly in my exam papers, and, I guess, politics exams everywhere. No democracy without interest groups; interest groups the greatest threat to democracy. Discuss. Students could approach the question from a number of directions. Those with taste for political philosophy could see it as an opportunity to compare and contrast Hobbes and Rousseau, while Marxists could explain how it exemplifies a contradiction inherent in capitalism and its liberal political order. The political scientists could explore the pluralist model with particular attention to its limitations as discussed by Public Choice theorists in general and Mancur Olson in particular.
It is worth reminding ourselves what we can learn from these lines of enquiry.
The Celtic Tiger is dead. Who is to blame and to what degree? The interrogation goes beyond the action of individuals to question the performance of institutions. In what follows, I consider the role of the civil service. While official enquiries have regularly questioned its organizational capacities, the catastrophe has, inevitably, focussed attention on the actions of civil servants. Did they know of the looming dangers? If not, why not? If they did, did they advise their ministers accordingly? If not, why not? What was their understanding of their role and to what extend did it inhibit or encourage them to know and inform? The evidence (scarce enough) suggests that both structural weaknesses and cultural inhibitions prevented them forming and offering the advice that could have reduced the damage. The trusted ‘lookouts’ neither saw clearly enough, nor reported boldly enough what they did discern to the ‘captain’ on the bridge.
This essay attempts to explain why this was so.