This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 4 2020
I have often had occasion to chide some Sri Lankans about their masochistic propensity to tout their homeland as a land like no other when it comes to nepotism, corruption, and venal politicians whose main aim is to feather their own nest rather than to meet the needs of the constituents they are rewarded handsomely to serve. The malign efforts of Sri Lankan politicians are dwarfed by the truly monumental corruption to be witnessed in the US. In the UK, the government is taking advantage of the pandemic to hand out contracts to political supporters who have no experience in epidemiological matters and the prime minister is packing the upper chamber with cronies and donors. He has even given a peerage to his own brother.
My passport is an Irish one. There are many things about Ireland of which I am proud. It has to be said that the amount of political corruption that Ireland has experienced is rather impressive for a nation of only 4.1 million people.
Ireland currently finds itself at a respectable No. 18 in the Corruption Perception Index (CPF) and it has hovered around that position for many years. Since the bad old days of Charles Haughey, there has been a general recognition that to retain its attractiveness to foreign investors, the Irish state needed to tackle a culture of corruption. The ‘brown envelope’ (or bribing of planning officials) has long been a feature of Irish life. Gombeenism describes the kind of parish-pump, pork-barrel politics in which those elected to be legislators devote themselves to cronyism and self-aggrandisement rather than honestly representing their constituents’ interests.
It is a matter of public record what a Taoiseach (or Irish Prime Minister, pronounced ‘tea-shock’) earns. On this fairly modest amount, Charles Haughey enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, including an opulent but unfortunately garrulous mistress, who even more unfortunately, was a sociable and bibulous journalist.
The McCracken Tribunal in 1997 unearthed illegal payments by businessmen into offshore accounts and Haughey faced criminal charges for obstructing the tribunal. It reported that the bribes, “when governments led by Mr Haughey were championing austerity, can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.
The supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne of Dunne’s Stores, on a cocaine-fuelled night in Miami, confessed to hooker about bribes he had paid Charlie as he tried to throw himself out of a hotel window. (A t-shirt popular in Ireland at the time bore the slogan: “Ben there, Dunne that, bought the Taoiseach”).
The tribunal concluded that Haughey had received around GBP 10 million from businessmen. A significant portion of funds donated for a liver-transplant operation for his former colleague Brian Lenihan was misappropriated by Haughey for personal use. Charlie’s protégé and successor Bertie Ahern presided as the youngest-ever Taoiseach over a booming Irish economy and helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Ahern signed the cheques from the Lenihan account, and this and other matters from the past came back to haunt him, forcing Ahern to set up the Mahon Tribunal which brought about his downfall.
The Haughey case was a tipping point. For a long time, Charlie got away with it even though it was common knowledge what he was up to. There was even a measure of affection for his rascality; he was called “a cute hoor”. It is difficult to sustain this when the people are suffering and the politicians are wallowing in the trough. One definition of corruption is “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain”. For ordinary citizens, it is more up-close and personal than an abstract definition. It means citizens struggling to get what should be their right. ‘Speed money’ to fast-track public services might be seen as being akin to tipping a waiter at a restaurant, but this is part and parcel of a toxic culture.
The Irish tribunals made a difference, in that they undermined the public’s tolerance for unethical behavior, and they destroyed the culture of silence in the process. Senior politicians such as Prime Ministers Haughey (death saved him from criminal conviction) and Ahern, Foreign Minister Ray Burke (who was jailed), and EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn and his daughter, minister Beverley Flynn (who was working for a bank when, in the Hiberno-English phrase, “the firm’s cash got mixed up with their own”) were named and shamed – and they paid the price.
That the arrogance has not departed from the Irish political mindset was demonstrated by recent events. I described in these pages the furor that erupted when the parliament’s golf club decided to hold a shindig in total disregard of the rules ordinary people were trying to follow to control the spread of Covid 19. As usual, Fintan O’Toole nails it: “They didn’t see the obvious because they didn’t think they had any obligation to be aware of where they were and what they were doing.”
There were 81 people at the function, plus staff and management. There were other hotel guests who did not attend the function. One of them phoned into a radio programme and said that he had sneaked a look at the table plan for the golf club function. When he went up to his own room, he said to his wife: “There’ll be trouble with this one.”
There were ten tables. At the “captain’s table” was Noel Grealish, Galway West TD (MP) and captain of the golf society; minister for agriculture Dara Calleary and his wife, Siobhán (he resigned); and EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan (he resigned). Former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey and his wife, Bernadette, were there too.
At other tables were former Fianna Fáil TD and senator Donie Cassidy, president of the golf society. Cassidy resigned as vice-president of Fianna Fáil following the controversy. The society’s 50th anniversary event was a tribute to the late Mark Killilea, a founding member of the group and former Fianna Fáil MEP. Fianna Fáil minister and property developer Frank Fahey was also at this table. Former RTÉ radio presenter Sean O’Rourke was at another table of eight. RTÉ cancelled a number of future projects with O’Rourke, which had included a planned weekend politics show.
Also, at the table were Senator Paddy Burke and councillor Enda McGloin, who both lost the Fine Gael whip as a result of their attendance. Dr Michael Harty, former TD and chair of the Oireachtas health committee, was also at the table. John Flaherty, captain of the guard at Leinster House, who is responsible for health and safety in the Houses of the Oireachtas was there.
Supreme Court Judge and former attorney general Séamus Woulfe, who had until very recently been the State’s chief law officer overseeing the drafting of the regulations was there. He is now facing a review by former chief justice Susan Denham into whether he should have attended the event.
Guests at Woulfe’s table included Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, who resigned as Leas Cathaoirleach (deputy speaker) of the Seanad, over the affair. Also at the table was former Independent TD Paudge Connolly, now a Monaghan county councillor. He had recently been playing golf in Spain so should have been in quarantine.
At Table 9 was former Fianna Fáil minister of state with responsibility for older people Áine Brady and her husband, Gerry, also a former Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare. Brady is chief executive of Third Age, an organisation that supports older people in Ireland. Among the guests listed at Table 10 was Loman Dempsey, a property consultant and brother of former Fianna Fáil government minister Noel Dempsey. His response to enquiries by the Irish Times was: “You are hounding everybody, so no comment and goodbye”. Martin Brett, Deputy chairman of Kilkenny County Council, who was also at this table said attendees were being wrongly “pilloried” and anyone who resigned over the scandal should be reinstated.
Among those attending were people who had a hand in writing the guidelines they were themselves breaking; there was a doctor, former chair of the parliamentary health committee; there was the CEO of a charity for older people; there was the man responsible for health and safety in parliament; there was an experienced broadcaster known for his incisive questioning of hypocrisy. Fintan O’Toole: “Did they not grasp how profoundly insulting so many people found the idea that someone who set the rules could make an exception for himself? Did that not lodge somewhere in the well-developed part of their brains that deals with self-preservation – I’d better not do that anyhow? “
The Sri Lankan people strongly stated that they were unhappy with what the politicians had done after 2015. There are high expectations of the new government. Politicians should heed the consequences of the arrogance of the great and good in Ireland.