Bobby McDonagh / Sep 2020
It is timely to remind ourselves in Ireland that, despite the suffering caused by British rule, it has left our country three valuable legacies: our politically neutral civil service, our independent judiciary and a parliament at the heart of our democracy. Ironically, it seems incontestable that today those three important legacies of British rule in Ireland are in considerably better shape in Ireland than in England itself. I say England deliberately because the Brexit-driven revolution seems to count for increasingly little in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
It is clear that the Irish parliament, courts and civil service, like those of every country, are far from perfect. Likewise, we should recognize that the UK may at some point rediscover its traditional values and pragmatism. But it will have a steep hill to climb and will face that journey bearing the self-inflicted wound of separation from its European neighbours.
For the moment, however, the contrast between Ireland and England is striking.
First, as regards the courts, the British tabloid description of judges a few years ago as enemies of the people, and the failure of the British Government seriously to challenge that description, still stands as a glaring challenge to the legitimacy and independence of the judiciary. This was in sharp contrast with the widespread and robust criticism when a member of the Irish parliament recently criticised an Irish High Court judge. Moreover, it seems that Prime Minister Johnson is proceeding with an overhaul of the English judicial system that he has described as the most radical in a generation. Some rough weather is heading in the direction of the British courts and, in particular, their important right to judicially review Government decisions.
Second, the attempt by the Johnson Government last autumn to prorogue the British parliament, in order to prevent it from exercising further influence on a matter of profound national importance, would have been unthinkable in Ireland or indeed under any other British Government in living memory.
As regards the British civil service, Johnson’s enforcer, Dominic Cummings, has warned it that, as prophesied in Bob Dylan’s song, “a hard rain” is going to fall. The downpour has clearly set in. Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, and the Permanent Secretaries of three major Government Departments have been sent packing. This follows the easing out of some very highly regarded British Ambassadors. Senior heads are rolling in the British civil service and the tumbril gathers pace.
At the core of the independence of the British civil service has been the principle that officials serve the Government of the day without fear or favour and that Ministers value their objective advice without questioning their allegiance or motivation. Three things seem to have happened. Adherence to the Cummings catechism, with Brexit zealotry as its principle tenet, now seems to be valued as much as objective advice; the balance of power has been tilted towards political advisors controlled centrally by Cummings; and the long British tradition of political accountability has been turned on its head. The buck now, at least for the moment, stops with civil servants.
Ireland’s civil service, in contrast, has moved smoothly to work with the new coalition Government here, as indeed it would have worked with Sinn Féin or any Government elected by the Irish people. In what might once have been called a great British tradition, the political affiliations of the new Irish Ministers and any political sympathies of individual civil servants have been utterly irrelevant to the bedding down of the new Government and will remain so. The contrast with the appointment of the UK’s new National Security Advisor to be concurrently a Conservative peer in the House of Lords is obvious. However, the greatest damage to the British public service, beyond the high-profile casualties, will be if and when younger British civil servants are influenced by which side of the bread their careers seem to be buttered on.
As regards accountability at political level, the contrast between the two countries at the moment could hardly be more striking or straightforward. Since the new Irish Government took office in June, one Minister has resigned following a driving offence. Another has resigned following the golf dinner shambles which has also claimed the scalps of several other politicians and the career of the Irish EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan. Meanwhile, in London, several Ministers have remained in place in circumstances in which their distinguished predecessors would have chosen to fall on their swords rather than bury them between the shoulder blades of their civil servants.
If in the coming years the London Government finds itself increasingly cut off from objective advice about British interests, the question in Bob Dylan’s song might be very pertinent: “And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?”