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It's time for a revolt against vested interests

A woman of my acquaintance had a part as an extra in Neil Jordan's film, The Butcher Boy. Some scenes were filmed in St Ita's mental hospital in Portrane. It took her months to get over the nightmarish conditions she found there.

That was 13 years ago. The woman in question is now my colleague Emer O'Kelly. She wrote about it after the latest official report yet again described conditions as "appalling".

I mention it to make the point that this scandal has received regular publicity, and even more regular promises from decades of health ministers that something will be done. It is all too typical of the way things are done, or more often not done, in Ireland.

There are many other things besides mental health services that, for decades, have been promised for immediate fixing. They include driving test queues, lack of provision for juvenile offenders and inadequate schools.

That shortlist covers four major departments. The combined salaries and pensions of the ministers and managers who presided over these failures would make a pretty penny. Yet not one of them have ever been called to account.

No bonuses have ever been withheld. No TD has lost his or her seat on grounds of incompetence.

Why am I going on about all this? It does seem far removed from the economic crisis. I have come to the view, however, it has a great deal to do with the crisis and I am less convinced there will be a full economic recovery if we do not radically improve the way we do things. The problems are wider than the public service. But one knows the season from the fig tree. If the country is not functioning properly, it will show up foremost in poor governance and public services.

Even so, it is certainly curious to see public sector leaders complaining the public service is being blamed. Of course it is being blamed. Who else is to blame for the state of so much of it? Not the patients, the prisoners, the learner drivers and the schoolchildren. My fear is that our ailments are deeper than an inadequate public service. After all the proximate cause of the crisis lies in the private sector - with the banks. And the salient point once again is not the failures, but the absence of explanations.

This week may see another burst of public fury at the latest revelations about apparently futile investigations into affairs at Anglo-Irish Bank. A demoralised population may well assume this is all just a whitewash intended to avoid explanations until we all move on and forget about it.

This palpable loss of trust in the way we are governed is one of the reasons for being pessimistic about the country's strategic future. There is, though, another possible explanation - that we already know all there is to know about Anglo. A tale of monumental greed, for sure, but where actual wrongdoing consisted of shareholder deception and ill-conceived rescue attempts - some of them approved by the regulatory authorities.

Whatever about Sean FitzPatrick, we need to know what men like Brian Goggin at Bank of Ireland and Eugene Sheehy at AIB thought they were doing.

What discussions took place within the banks about the phenomenal expansion in lending? Did they ignore good advice or were there plausible arguments that, this time, it really was different? Were they merely foolish; or did they understand the risks they were running all along?

I suspect this is what Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan has in mind with his inquiry idea, having said it would not be about blaming individuals. The duty of explanation falls on the chairmen of the big two banks - Richard Burrows and Dermot Gleeson - but there is no sign that they will.

The fact that two such eminent leaders of our business and professional life feel no need to do so shows how deep rooted is a culture of "confidentiality" and lack of accountability. This is not China. A successful small open economy requires an open society. Despite outward appearances, a case could be made that the Ireland of 2009 is more like that of 1959. If this is the case, new economic policies, even from new ministers, will not be enough.

Something close to a revolution in our attitudes towards secrecy, accountability and the protection of vested interests is required if the rot beneath is not to fatally corrode the already tarnished outside patina.