The buck stops where?

Jan 25th, 2007 | By | Category: Ireland

A comical story did the rounds in London in the late 1970s. The Royal Shakespeare Company, based then at the Aldwych Theatre, had a very successful run with Wild Oats by John O’Keefe. The play attracted excellent reviews from the press, but caught attention in other quarters. The Inland Revenue could find no record of Mr O’Keefe having paid any income tax and began to make inquiries about his whereabouts and tax status. O’Keefe, known for his comedies, would have been delighted at such a comic development; he died in 1833 almost a century and a half before the taxmen began asking their questions.

Posthumous pursuit of people is not so strange. On a road near Ardglass in Co Down, there was a single storey cottage. Unused for some time, it had become a store for a local framer. Even the door was made of corrugated iron. Tom, a friend was passing one day when he spotted two men in suits standing outside the cottage. He stopped and asked them their business.

“We are from the TV licence office”, they said. “Does Mr Carson live here?”

“He lived here last time I saw him”, said Tom.

“Buck eejits”, he told me, “the man has been dead for years. But I told them no lie. He was alive and well and living there the last time I saw him”.

Bureaucratic incompetence by the Inland Revenue or the television licence authorities is probably of no great significance, nothing is generally done that can’t be undone.

Sadly, bureaucratic incompetence in other public offices can have altogether more tragic consequences. The death of a fourteen year old girl in Dungarvan, Co Waterford on Sunday evening, a year after the Health Service Executive was warned that action was necessary, brings shame on an entire system. Despite repeated warnings and despite recommendations that action be taken, someone somewhere decided to sit on their hands.

As in most such cases the blame will probably be dissipated and responsibility diluted, even a public inquiry would make no difference anyway, lost lives cannot be recovered. But there needs to be a cultural shift towards transparency and accountability. In impersonal structures it is too easy for people to hide, and it’s too easy for people to be lost.

Christians believe in accountability on judgment day; our world would be a safer and happier place if there were a greater degree of accountability in the meantime

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