Your Country Your Call: FOI reveals a System of the World

The key document released to Rossa McMahon following his FOI appeal to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation was An Smaoineamh Mór’s proposal document for the Your Country Your Call competition.

It is valuable because it exposes more than just this particular set of proposals. It reveals the relationship between Fianna Fáil’s public, elected, face and its much larger invisible manifestation.

That relationship is of key importance when considering what can be done to fix the country’s institutional problems. Fianna Fáil is a patronage machine. It gathers power from being able to deliver jobs, influence and results to its supporters. In turn, they will work to deliver more jobs, influence and results to other supporters.

The elected members of Fianna Fáil are not, necessarily, the most powerful wielders of this patronage power. What we see in the Your Country, Your Call document are the promoters of a private company planning to run a (ill-defined) competition for business plans and then to lobby to have those plans adopted.

What the promoters of Your Country Your Call see is the true leadership of the country setting out its plan for recovery. That leadership is not the Government who, as the document so clearly sets out, merely have a “Role” to play. It is something more deeply embedded in and around the structures of the state. It is Fianna Fáil, the national movement, operating above and beyond mere electoral politics to rescue the nation from misfortune.

What other explanation can there be for a document from a newly formed company presuming to dictate to the three highest Officeholders in the State what is expected of them?

The Role of the President of Ireland

• The Patron

• Launch in January 2010

• A number of high-profile national events

• Media Interviews

• Messages on website/flyers/brochures

• Presentation of prizes

The Role of Government

• Contribute to funding

• Engage in supportive activities through messages, speeches and other material

• Promotion of the initiative by Taoiseach/Tanaiste/Minister(s) at public events

• Support the implementation phase as required.

That last point- “Support the implementation phase as required”- is where the gulf between the reality of what the promoters were doing and their self perception of their behaviour was widest. The opening paragraph of the YCYC document is clear that the competition is intended to have two phases

1. The Choosing of the best proposals from among the competition entries

2. Implementation of the winning proposals

Outside the Fianna Fáil patronage machine, a tiny, newly-established company could never credibly assert that it will implement proposals which (as the document acknowledges) will involve “legislative, administrative or procedural change before implementation can be effected”. But inside the patronage machine, these changes are presumed to be available for the asking. Or the telling. “The Role of Government” is to “Support the implementation phase as required”, you see.

Finally, to fully understand the significance of the YCYC document- the fullest and clearest self description they ever wrote- we should consider its context. It was provided to Minister Mary Coughlan at least four months after she had committed €300,000 of public money to its promoters. From the papers released so far under FOI, it appears to have been the closest thing to a proposal document that was ever delivered to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

Furthermore, this document is attached to an email dated the 15th February 2010, two days before the competition was formally launched by the President of Ireland. Unfortunately, as we learn in a briefing note prepared for the Assistant Secretary and Secretary- General of Mary Coughlan’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, the Minister wasn’t exactly shouting from the rooftops about the promises she’d made.

“It took some time to establish precisely the nature of the commitment which the Tanaiste had given to the YCYC initiative. However, the Tanaiste advised the Secretary General on 17 February that, following discussions with the Minister for Finance, €300,000 was to be provided in this Department’s Vote [budget] for the purposes of supporting the initiative”

That’s the Secretary General being told about this commitment on the day the President was launching the competition. How galling it must have been for the Minister to have to answer questions about her perfectly natural participation in a Fianna Fáil project.

Imagine her impatience at the next turn of events:

This information was conveyed by the Tanaiste on the day prior to the publication of the 2010 Revised Estimates. The Department of Finance officials with whom we were in regular contact in preparing the Estimates were unaware of the arrangement to support YCYC and, given the timing, it was not possible to have an additional €300,000 included in the Department’s published Estimate for 2010.

The current situation is that a commitment clearly appears to have been given at a political level to provide financial support to the YCYC initiative. However, no additional funding has been made available to the Department to provide such support.

A political commitment has been made to YCYC’s promoters. Not merely by Mary Coughlan, but by their decades of participation with the Fianna Fáil patronage machine. No matter what happens at the ballot box, Fianna Fáil’s power will remain as long as that patronage can be called on and dispensed.

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