(Normal service on The Gist will be resumed after this last piece on the National Maternity Hospital)
The privilege of office
By Monday, the Taoiseach had had enough. The National Maternity Hospital decision had been postponed for two weeks to explain its virtues to the public before the Government confirmed its go-ahead.
But over that fortnight the Government had found itself losing the room. A poll over the weekend saw FG losing 5% of their support and 60% of the public had declared themselves against it.
As usual when governments lose public support, this was presented as a communications problem. The public just didn’t understand why this plan was such a good deal. They had misinformed themselves. They were just opposing it for political purposes. The merits were being debated when they should just be accepted and welcomed.
So the Taoiseach decided to use the power of his office. He refused to engage with any of the questions or issues raised, declared them nonsense and said that the decision was going to happen the next day, with no changes.
And that was that, really. The Government did what the Taoiseach told them the following day. Two Green TDs declined to do what they were told the next day and were stripped of the party whip for six months.
I was opposed to the proposed deal. I think the wording is ambivalent, and that a 299 year lease and licence deal can’t afford to be anything but crystal-clear.
I wanted to reflect with you about the experience of those two weeks and what came after.
An Expert Eye
I wasn’t representing a client or getting paid by anyone as I did this public engagement. As they describe, down at the Bar, working unpaid to try to make things better for everyone, I was acting Pro Bono Publico- for the public good.
I am a litigator. That’s both my primary professional experience and my temperament. I read documents with an eye to the weak points. I look for inconsistencies, escape clauses and unlawful elements. And so, when they were released, I stress tested these agreement papers.
And, just as a citizen of the republic, I found some howlers in the NMH deal paperwork. Most crucially, the phrase “clinically appropriate” had been inserted at its root without a definition, creating a risk of unexpected or perverse interpretation across the next three centuries.
The drafters hadn’t seen that risk because they had been working towards finding a form of words that they could all agree on. The words had been put in at the HSE's request because it was trying to address one of the risks inherent in the absorption of the National Maternity Hospital into the St Vincent's Healthcare Group. And when a group of people are all looking to reach a common outcome, that’s all they come to see over time. Group-think sets in.
Group-think and its costs
The tendency to group-think over time is why adversarial testing is part of cyber-security. People get paid by companies and organisations to attack their security setup, to test it. It’s why armies run war games, and why they pay outside think tanks to run more of them for them. It’s why, after the Vietnam war, the US army built a “stovepipe system” where officers outside the usual chain of command could by-pass the layers of officialdom who had been involved in making a decision to deliver the bad news of its real world consequences to the top brass.
And, of course, in the world of political decisions, it is why there is a system of legislative scrutiny and review.
We forget it sometimes, but the Government doesn’t pass laws- the Oireachtas does that. And that’s because hearing the opinion of “the loyal opposition”, who are outside the group consensus of government, produces stronger, more robust legislation. An institutionalised process that challenges groupthink is why democracies tend to last longer than autocracy.
Everyone is fallible, and failure becomes more certain the more closed a decision-making process becomes.
But precisely because they have worked so long towards a common goal, people who are engaging in group-think find challenges to their shared beliefs intolerable. When citizens’ arguments fall outside the permitted range of group-think on a topic, but are difficult to deny on their own merits, their legitimacy is attacked based on who’s making them (too old, the wrong sort of expert etc).
Shooting the Messenger
This isn’t a new feature of Irish politics. When, in 2007, UCD Economics Professor Morgan Kelly warned about an impending property crash the then Taoiseach said he didn’t know why citizens like him didn’t just kill themselves.
“Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. I don't know how people who engage in that don't commit suicide”
The executives of Anglo-Irish Bank joked with fellow in-group stockbrokers that Professor Kelly should be ‘incinerated’.
After the crash that Prof Kelly predicted had come, taking Ireland's banks, economy and many citizens with it, a Finnish academic was hired to identify its causes. He reported that "group-think and herding" had gripped Ireland's banks, Government and the Central Bank alike. All the experts had agreed. And because of that, they had all ended up disastrously wrong.
Power can be wielded without concern for voters’ views. But, in Ireland, doing it has a price to be paid at the next visit to the ballot box.
But, more importantly, when group-think distorts policy making we all pay a price for the blunders that follow. It is because we live in a republic that we have both a duty and a right to speak up when we see those mistakes being made.
The Three Fates
In his book Exit, Voice and Loyalty the political economist Albert O. Hirschman set out how organisations and states failed.
When people see policy mistakes being made they have three choices- they can simply Exit (quit or migrate), give Voice to their concerns to try to fix the problem, or put Loyalty to the existing powers ahead of the good of the whole and defend it, no matter what.
- Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty
Of the three responses Hirschman identified, only valuing people giving Voice to their concerns can ever make things better for the whole. Rewarding Loyalty over speaking hard truths is the surest way to destroy a country or organisation, as its denial of the existence of problems means they can never be addressed.
Ireland has a sorry history of trying to stifle challenging voices and rewarding loyalty.
Hoping for Error
For the rest of my days I will ardently hope to be proved wrong about my concerns with the National Maternity Hospital. Over and over again, day after day, everyone who warned about this plan will wish to be shown up to be wrong. Anything else would be monstrous, given what it would mean to be proven right.
But, avoidably, I will also fear that one day this plan's critics might turn out to be right. And what a bitter legacy that will be for those who spent these weeks demanding Loyalty to the conventional wisdom.