Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: corruption

Lords of Sleaze Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 9 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/lords-of-sleaze

Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the UK House of Commons becomes more embarrassing as week succeeds week. It should be renamed PMB (Prime Minister’s Bluster). Boris Johnson never actually answers a question. He changes the subject and often harangues the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, firing questions at him. Starmer recently reminded Johnson that the prime minister was supposed to be the one answering the questions but if he wanted to change places, he, Starmer, would be happy to do the PM’s job.

Traduced by Lies

 

Last week Johnson contrived to traduce two party leaders – Starmer, Labour Party leader, and Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, both men of integrity and intelligence who always engage in rational argument. While various crises were bubbling up and the government was pirouetting in a series of U-turns, Johnson did his usual trick of going on holiday. He went camping on farmland in Scotland (without asking the farmer’s permission) in Blackford’s constituency. Johnson or his minions leaked to the press the fake news that Blackford had told the press about Johnson’s presence in his constituency. Blackford strenuously denied that he had even known that Johnson was there and demanded an apology for the inconvenience the lie had caused. Blackford and his family had been deluged by hate mail and death threats. Despite a somewhat limp intervention by the Speaker, no apology was forthcoming.

While avoiding a well-constructed question about the exam fiasco, Johnson insinuated that Starmer had been an IRA sympathiser. Unusually, Starmer was visibly angry and demanded that the Speaker reprimand the prime minister. The Speaker mumbled something ineffective but Johnson did not withdraw or apologise. Starmer made an irrefutable point by telling the prime minister that in his five years as Director of Public Prosecutions he worked closely with the Northern Ireland police service and brought many IRA murderers to justice.

Foxy Lady

I thought Starmer missed a trick here by not challenging the prime minister’s decision to award a peerage to Claire Fox, a former Brexit Party MEP. She was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) who defended the IRA’s killing in 1993 of two young boys, Tim Parry (aged 12) and Jonathan Ball (aged 3), in Warrington. Bronwen Vickers, the 32-year-old mother of two young daughters, had to have a leg amputated, and died just over a year later from cancer. The Irish Rock magazine Hot Press recently featured an article by Eamon McCann, who was a prominent nationalist member of the civil rights movement in Derry. He reminisces about a visit to Derry by the RCP in the early 90s. “I knew the minute I set eyes on RCP-ers that they were well dodgy. Clean fingernails, glossy hair, that sort of thing.” Lady Claire and her buddies  were polite enough when they were telling the locals what to do: “they engaged innocent Bogsiders in detailed discussion of how the community might slough off the congealed muck of British imperialism, patiently explaining that armed struggle was your only man.“ When the IRA declared a cease-fire in 1997, she went “Bat-shit crazy” and “stormed along to the Blutcher Street home of one of Derry’s top Sinn Feiners, banged on the door and demanded an explanation. His response that she should – to use a technical term – fuck off, appeared to dampen Claire’s fervour.” She was never seen again in Derry.

Was the Queen Graciously Pleased?

“The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention of conferring the following Peerages of the United Kingdom for Life.” The honours list was sneaked out on a Friday evening to avoid attention but it still caused a great deal of shock and disgust. To judge by the comments on   the TelegraphTimes and ConservativeHome websites, even Tory supporters are disgusted. Just like the National List in Sri Lanka, the House of Lords has been corrupted and perverted from the useful device that it could be. The Lords could be a forum utilising the wisdom of experienced professionals who had not made a career in politics. There is a need for a check on the Commons that is not distracted by elections every five years. Johnson is not the first prime minister to depart from this ideal but this list is the most blatant expression of contempt for it since Lloyd George.

There has been criticism of the size of the Sri Lankan parliament and we have endured bloated cabinets constructed, not to provide efficient administration, but to build support and pay dues. In the UK, there is a cross-party consensus that the House of Lords has too many members. Johnson has chosen to swell the ranks of those getting £162 a day for remotely attending a meeting (£323 a day in normal times), plus expenses. This influx of cronies will increase membership of the Lords to 830. That is 160 more than 20 years ago; France’s upper chamber has 348, the US has 100 and Germany has 69. The Seanad Éireann has 60.

Johnson has rewarded cronies, Brexiteers, family (a peerage for his brother Jo),

Tory donors, time-serving Conservative MPs and Labour rebels. Would Ian Botham have been given a peerage had he not been a vocal supporter of the Leave campaign in 2016? What kind of asset will Beefy be to the national legislature?

A History of Sleaze

The Johnson list has little to do with “honour”.  Although, it is a particularly egregious example of cynicism and contempt for the nation’s institutions and citizens, there is a long history of prime ministers doing this kind of thing. Lloyd George’s 1922 list prompted King George V to say it “must be regarded as little less than an insult to the Crown and to the House of Lords“. The Lloyd George affair led to the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 which states that it is a criminal offence for someone to offer “any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour”. The 1976 list of Harold Wilson – the “lavender list” – caused merriment as well as anger. On December 14 2006, Tony Blair became the first serving British prime minister to be interviewed by police conducting a criminal investigation. In November 2014, former Liberal Democrat Treasurer, Lord Razzall, blithely admitted that he was often approached by rich businessmen offering donations in return for honours. Although he had been a solicitor for 30 years, he claimed he was not aware that these approaches constituted criminal offences which he should have reported to the police. The three biggest donors to the Liberal Democrats had been given peerages by Nick Clegg when he was deputy prime minister in David Cameron’s coalition. In less than a year of becoming PM, David Cameron created 117 new peers. He bestowed honours on 46 aides, advisers and ministers in his resignation list.

More on this next week.

 

 

Sri Lanka and Oil

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 19 2018.

 

In his treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principle architect of OPEC, wrote: “Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.”

Groundhog Day

Oh no! Here we go again!

Sri Lanka is once again toying with the idea of exploring for oil. Apparently, an “interested investor” has made a proposal which has led the Sri Lankan government to believe that it can award exploration rights to at least two shallow water blocks off the north east coast. The two blocks, identified as C1 and M1 are in the Mannar Basin to the West, and the Cauvery Basin surrounding the Jaffna peninsula. A competitive bidding round for exploration of a deep-water block where gas has already been found will begin in May.

One can see why the Sri Lankan Government would like to have its own oil. Each year, Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of oil at a cost of US$ 2.2 billion, Oil is used to generate electricity as well as for transport. One can add to this the cost of subsidies, and the knock-on effect of transport and electricity costs on the price of everything. Back in 2015, I reported in these pages that the minister for power and energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka, had announced that Sri Lanka will stop importing fuel by 2020. Way back in August 2007, the then Petroleum Resources Development Minister AHM Fowzie met a slew of representatives of oil companies on a junket to Baku. According to Mr Fowzie, Sri Lanka was going to produce oil by 2010. Still waiting.

 

Muddy Waters

The current government (specifically Ranil Wickremesinghe) has hit on a spiffing wheeze (or cunning plan, as Baldrick might call it) called “Swiss Challenge”. This wheeze has been tried out in the Philippines, some African countries and India. The idea is to formalize unsolicited proposals from prospective investors by allowing others to bid on the proposal and then ask the original proposer to match the best bid. If the original proposer does not match the best bid, it is awarded to the best bid. It has been reported that there is growing concern in the Sri Lankan business community about this new policy. This is another of those dirty tricks associated with public /private finance scams that I have written about so often. Swiss Challenge, according to the Sri Lankan government, “allows for an innovative unsolicited proposal by a company to the government to be made public, to allow other competitors a chance to match it.” The Vijay Kelkar committee was set up to evaluate public-private partnership (PPP) models in India. The committee’s report said that Swiss Challenge proposals must be “actively discouraged” as “they bring information asymmetries in the procurement process and result in lack of transparency and in the fair and equal treatment of potential bidders in the procurement process”.

The Trouble with Oil

The trouble with oil is that it encourages corruption. The trouble with PPP is that it encourages corruption. When you put oil and PPP together you get a lot of trouble. As long ago as 2004, Transparency International estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing and oil seemed to absolutely guarantee corruption. Saudi Arabia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen were highly corrupt.

Mr Fowzie’s friend, the president of Azerbaijan, long ago promised to cut poverty and create 200,000 jobs, but about half of Azerbaijan’s population still lives below the poverty line. A ruling dynasty has been established and oil-rich families from the clan networks of Nakhichevan retain their power base by resorting to arrests, torture and media suppression. Do we want a despotic ruling dynasty in Sri Lanka?

Oil generates US$ 17 billion each year for Nigeria. If that were shared it would provide 15 years of wages for every man, woman and child in the country. The proportion of Nigerians living in poverty rose to 66 per cent by 1996. Nigeria has emphatically shown that oil can bring poverty, corruption, environmental damage, conflict, foreign exploitation, and erosion of human rights

New Zealand

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, recently announced that her government will ban new permits for offshore oil exploration to “protect future generations from climate change”.

 

 

 

Lessons from Ireland

This article appeared in the November 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: “Michael O’Leary recounts Ireland’s battles with corruption, which tarnished the offices of two of its Prime Ministers”.

 

Corruption thrives everywhere in the world. It is endemic in the US through what are known as ‘earmarks’ or ‘pork’. The saga of the ‘Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere’ has forced one US Senator to face criminal charges while the Republican Vice- Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is now also implicated.

 

Ireland finds itself at a respectable No. 17 in the Corruption Perception Index (CPF) while the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) places it at the top of its Quality Of Life Index. Ireland has the world’s fifth-highest

GDP, although world conditions are currently de-fanging the Celtic Tiger. 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 – politicians at all levels have had a tendency to confuse party funds with their own personal income. ‘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. 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 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 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.

 

In 1999, the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) published a discussion paper, ‘The Accountancy Profession and The Fight against Corruption’, which urged accountants to help root out corruption. In Ireland, bankers and accountants colluded with and were protected by the perpetrators.

Des Traynor, Haughey’s own accountant, helped 120 of the country’s richest men to divert their money through London and the Cayman Islands, and back to Dublin, to evade tax. Allied Irish Banks (AIB) operated 50,000 bogus overseas accounts to avoid Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT). AIB also wrote off Haughey’s huge overdraft. The phrase ‘banana republic’ was often bandied about at the time.

 

So, what is corruption? One definition 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.

 

Codes of conduct and training will remind officials that they are public servants. Corruption thrives when the wealth and potential of the public sector are used without the consent of those who happen to work in government. Economic theory and empirical evidence both demonstrate that corruption impedes economic growth by discouraging investment, deterring entrepreneurship, diverting public talent, reducing the quality of public infrastructure and distorting public finances. Regression analyses have shown a correlation between corruption and income inequality. Corruption leads to an unfair distribution of state resources and services.

Corruption also inhibits citizen participation, which in turn lowers the quality of public services and infrastructure. The poor suffer disproportionately from low-quality public services. When people perceive that the social system is inequitable, their incentive to engage in productive economic activities declines.

 

In 1997, Professor Robert Klitgaard, the world’s leading expert on corruption, recommended the following:

 

  • “Fry a few big fish…”. Major corrupt figures need to be convicted to undermine the culture of impunity.
  • Anonymous groups should conduct diagnostic studies of corrupt systems of procurement and contracting.
  • Collect information to raise the probability of corruption being detected.
  • Link officials’ salaries to success, so they earn enough to control temptation.

 

The corrupt would be comfortable if the citizenry took a pessimistic view that because corruption exists everywhere, nothing can be done about it. No one would argue that because pollution and disease exist in every country, nothing should be done to reduce them.

 

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.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Corruption

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 1 2012

Although patriotic Sri Lankans might like to boast that they are the best in the world at the corruption game, there are lessons to be learnt from other countries. Somalia holds up the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index at number 182.  Sri Lanka is at number 86 (improving on a previous 91), somewhat worse than Serbia, Panama and Jamaica. I am not saying mutts like Somalia can teach us anything. Lessons can, however, be learnt from nations who are sophisticated enough to climb to respectable positions on the index.

In 2010, Ireland was at number 14 and the UK at number 20. The 2011 table shows the UK (now number 16) has improved in honesty and Ireland (number 19) has worsened. The US is at number 24.

Only this week, news came out that Micheál Martin, the current leader of Fianna Fáil, the party, which dominated Irish politics for most of the life of the Republic, has called on his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, to be expelled from the party.

Bertie’s mentor, Charles Haughey, enjoyed an opulent lifestyle on his modest salary as Taoiseach (or Irish Prime Minister, pronounced ‘tea-shock’). He had a fine art collection and wine cellar, racehorses, owned at least one island, a helicopter and enjoyed the services of a voluptuous but garrulous mistress. Retail tycoon Ben Dunne gave Charlie millions, prompting the T-shirt slogan: “Ben there. Dunne that. Bought the Taoiseach”. A culture of impunity has rewarded corrupt politicians, bankers and builders. Ireland shares with Sri Lanka a kind of cronyism. ‘Gombeenism’ describes the kind of parish-pump politics in which those elected to be legislators devote themselves to self-aggrandisement and bestowing favours,  rather than honestly representing their constituents’ interests.

Fianna Fáil was practically wiped out at the last general election. The last Fianna Fáil PM, Brian Cowan, liked to refer to himself affectionately as Biffo, Big Ignorant Fat F…er from Offaly. He has lost any affection the public felt for him, and has apologised for his role in ruining the economy. The culprits continued to receive generous pensions and expenses.

Martin’s condemnation of Bertie came after a report said, “Corruption in Irish political life was both endemic and systemic. It affected every level of government, from some holders of top ministerial offices to some local councillors, and its existence was widely known and widely tolerated.” The report found Mr. Ahern failed to “truthfully account” for the source of bank account lodgements and   confirmed the former Fianna Fáil leader’s personal behaviour had fallen short of the standard expected of holders of high office.

The report referred to was by the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, commonly known as the Mahon Tribunal. As well as accusing Ahern of untruthfulness, the report found former European Commissioner Pádraig Flynn behaved corruptly, and said another former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had abused his power.
Martin made sure the other Irish parties were not left out of the condemnation. Current PM, Enda Kenny, refused to take any action when told a member of his Fine Gael party had “sought a bribe of £250,000”.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams claimed institutionalised sleaze and corruption had been rife in Ireland.  “It was not just political life that was corrupt,” he added. “So, too, was the business elite.” Adams said institutional corruption and gombeenism (a Sri Lankan equivalent of the Gombeen Man would be the mudalali involved in politics) were part and parcel of British colonial rule on the island and the practices survived and thrived in the post-colonial period.
Martin described Sinn Féin’s “embrace of double standards” as “particularly brazen”. During the period investigated by Mahon, “Sinn Féin’s movement killed more than 200 people, kneecapped and exiled many more and ran this island’s largest racketeering, kidnapping and bank-robbing network”.

Some Sri Lankans have a touching faith in the institutions of western countries. When one points to the shortcomings of other countries, one is told that there is at least accountability for wrong-doing, unlike the impunity that is characteristic of Sri Lanka. Taking Ireland as an example, one can take comfort in the fact that there is an Act of the Oireachtas (parliament), establishing Tribunals of Inquiry to look into matters of urgent public importance. Tribunals are obliged to report their findings to the Oireachtas. They have the power to enforce the attendance and examination of witnesses and the production of documents relevant to the work in hand.

By the end of 2000, there were six tribunals. According to historian Diarmaid Ferriter: “Tribunals were an indictment of the lack of investigation at home into these issues. It often took outsiders to unfold the truth, as with the exposure by Susan O’Keefe of the BBC of the beef industry in the 1991 documentary “Where’s the Beef?” O’Keefe concluded that there was in Irish society too much indulgence of unethical behaviour and that a culture of silence prevailed. These tribunal inquiries tended to go on for a long time (Mahon started in 1997), the details are very complicated and they are very costly to the taxpayer.

The amounts brown-enveloped by corrupt businessmen and politicians are trivial compared to the amounts legally made by lawyers at the tribunals. Barristers’ daily tribunal rates were €2,500 (£1,700 LKR 432,000). Senior counsel Patrick Quinn earned more than €50,000 from other  State work. In a year, he was paid almost €500,000 for working part-time at the inquiry. He earned a total of €5,273,521.17 (911,223,388 Sri Lanka Rupees) in fees over the decade he has worked at the tribunal. Legal team costs for 2011 were €950,000. Total legal costs have reached almost €50 million (8,639,610,596 Sri Lanka Rupees).

It is not a function of Tribunals to administer justice, their work is solely inquisitorial. Wrongdoers can take comfort in the fact that the outcome of tribunals would rarely be prosecution.

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/news-features/item/4584-

corruption.html#sthash.7yvkong8.dpuf

Political Corruption UK –Style

 

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 15 2012

 

 

In the Labour landslide of 1997, little Alistair Burt lost his parliamentary seat of Bury North, which he had first won in 1983. He lost to David Chaytor who was later jailed for fiddling his expenses. Burt returned to parliament in 2001, taking over the safe Tory seat of Bedfordshire North East from Sir Nicholas Lyell.

Burt had his own problems in the expenses scandal. He seems to be rather fond of little bites. Between 2004 and 2005, he claimed more than £13,000 in hotel expenses. He regularly claimed for alcohol and snacks from mini bars of hotels such as the Savoy. In March 2004, he claimed £2 for a packet of Pringles, £3 for a bag of mixed nuts. The following month he claimed £3.55 for a ‘night beverage’ and £6 for another two bags of mixed nuts.
Burt agreed to repay a total of £229.24 for hotel sundries. “I do accept that the climate has changed, and although I thought these were perfectly fair subsistence charges I will repay them immediately,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry for any error made, in relation to any claim, which is considered excessive.” How can a man looking after 30 countries at the Foreign Office have time to fill in a form to claim a refund for peanuts?

Burt over-claimed payments for his London flat by £200 per month for five months in 2006. He apologised for what he described as an ‘oversight’. However, he said that because he had not claimed for food during the period, he should not need to repay the money. He was let off and allowed to keep the GBP 1,000. The taxpayer-funded rent at his latest flat comes to £1,890 per month. For more on Burt see:
http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=28632.

The venal and venial fiddling by MPs revealed by the Daily Telegraph is shameful, but more worrying than politicians lining their own pockets, is the systemic undermining of democracy by lobbyists. The London Sunday Times set up a sting operation against Peter Cruddas, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, forcing his resignation. He was secretly filmed offering influence over policy in return for donations to party funds.

Voters are not getting what they voted for. They are getting what wealthy donors want. The case of NHS ‘reforms’ is a prime example. In the early 90s when Kenneth Clarke, now Justice Minister in the coalition government, was Health Minister the government was trying to privatise everything to endow the supposedly entrepreneurial sector with a licence to print money exploiting what had been regarded as public utilities. There would be no risk in their investment as guarantees against failure would be provided by the taxpayer.  New Labour continued privatisation of the NHS by stealth. Health Secretary Alan Milburn became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and works 18 days a year advising Cinven, a private equity, which owns 37 private hospitals. In January 2008, it was announced that another Labour Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, had been appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest chemists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven.

After Labour left office, Hewitt was secretly filmed by Channel 4 News claiming she could influence policy in return for cash payments. Not one of the 20 politicians approached in the sting put the phone down. The amounts asked were so similar, wrote Philip Clothier in Prospect magazine, “£3000-£5000 a day plus — that it almost felt these politicians had agreed a rate among themselves beforehand, or at least that such a rate was now deemed commonplace in Westminster…. The more I watched and listened, the more it seemed reasonable to conclude that our candidates had fallen out of love with politics… Patricia Hewitt’s monthly diary was assessed in the numbers of days that she was away from Westminster rather than at it. She fitted her interview with us in between two votes at Westminster. .. In their attempts to show off their access to all areas, they painted an image of Westminster as one big club where the members just pretend to be different for the public’s sake.”

At the last UK election, David Cameron recognised that the public did not want any further privatisation of the NHS and neither did the medical profession and promised no further reorganisation. Private health care organisations had donated more than £750,000 to the Conservatives since David Cameron became leader. John Nash, private equity tycoon had given £21,000 to health secretary Andrew Lansley’s personal office. Despite his election promises, when Cameron became PM a Health Bill was proposed, which meant further privatisation.

Tory peer Lord Stanley Fink (Fink by name, fink by nature) replaced Cruddas as the party’s principal treasurer. Known as the ‘godfather’ of the hedge fund industry, Fink has himself donated more than £2 million to the Conservative Party. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ)found that hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms contributed more than a quarter of all the Tories’ private donations, with three of the City’s hedge fund giants, Michael Farmer, Andrew Law and Fink together contributing £636,300. The general public can have no love for predatory capitalists who left the banks in ruins and demanded taxpayer support. They would not vote for these crooks. That carries no weight with governments.

 

 

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/feature-viewpoint/item/5002-political-corruption-united-kingdom-style.html#sthash.JzDfOGU2.dpuf

 

Corruption and Construction

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 20 2014.

Colman's Column3

Urban renewal seems to be inseparable from corruption. T Dan Smith was once a local hero in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then he was sentenced in 1974 to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans.

tds

Modernist planning was at its height in Britain during the 1960s, after the end of post-war austerity. Newcastle, as well as Manchester and Birmingham, was drastically transformed. It was a time of “clean sweep” planning, where the only constraints on redevelopment were economic. Conservation policy was restricted to the preservation of a limited number of major buildings and monuments. In his article, Alas Smith and Burns? Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne city centre 1959–68, John Pendlebury of the School of Architecture at Newcastle University, wrote “though modernist rationalism was the driving force in the city’s re-planning, it co-existed with a conscious policy of conservation, born out of a picturesque design tradition.”

Not everyone appreciated Smith’s efforts. Alec Glasgow wrote a contemporary folk song:

Weep, Geordie, weep,

At the murder of your city.

Weep, Geordie, weep

For the vandals have no pity.

 

Smith’s name is usually spoken in negative terms regarding the destruction of historic and aesthetically pleasing buildings, which were replaced with a concrete jungle.

Some called him Smith “Mr Newcastle” others called him “the mouth of the Tyne”. Another nickname was “one-coat Smith”. When he ran a painting and decorating firm, his painters were noted for their stingy use of materials. Despite this, the firm was granted more than half the contracts for painting council houses.

While his evangelical zeal to make Newcastle a better place may have been genuine, Smith’s desire to make money was stronger and got mixed up with his political ambitions. Smith was appointed Chairman of Newcastle council’s Housing Committee in 1958 and was elected as Leader of the City Council in 1959. He created one of the country’s first free-standing Planning Departments and made it the most powerful department in the council. He strengthened his power by creating an inner Cabinet of his own supporters. When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Smith was confident that he would be invited to take a national ministerial post. However, Wilson had vague suspicions about Smith’s probity and did not call him.

In 1962, Smith set up a PR firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the northeast, and later nationwide. Through this, he established links with John Poulson, an architect with a reputation for rewarding those who put business his way. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson’s redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.

Poulson

Another of Poulson’s contacts was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. In 1966, Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman of one of Poulson’s companies for £5,000 per annum. Maudling’s son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling’s wife. Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. This had led to heavy losses to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into Maudling’s conduct concluded that he had indulged in “conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members”.

Reginald_Maudling

No punishment was imposed but Maudling drank himself to death at the age of 61. The son, William Maudling, 42, who once lived in Downing Street with his family, threw himself from the 16th floor in 1999, his life ruined by heroin.

Smith’s PR firm was also involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme. Smith’s Wandsworth council contact, Alderman Sidney Sporle, fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s. The police investigation led to Smith himself being charged with bribery in January 1970. He was acquitted at his trial in July 1971, but was forced to resign all his political offices. Smith was arrested again in October 1973 after Poulson’s 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment; despite his guilty plea, he continued to assert his innocence.

After his death, Smith’s career was the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery’s play, Our Friends in the North. The part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong (who once stayed at our friends’ guesthouse in Badulla) in the 1996 BBC television drama version.

Back in the early 70s, I worked as a social security visitor in a poor district of Manchester. Some of the street names were already familiar to me from reading about the Moors Murderers. Brady and Hindley once trod those drab streets in Gorton and Ardwick. Things were changing in those days. The streets had been built as warrens of terraced back-to-back houses for the workers of the industrial revolution. Lives could be cramped and stunted but there was also a sense of community still celebrated by the popular teledrama Coronation Street, which started in the early 60s and is still running.

Manchester Corporation, like similar ruling bodies in other municipalities, probably had good intentions when they embarked on slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the old houses were pretty grim with outside toilets and some had gas mantles rather than electric light.

New blocks sprang up quite quickly. These resembled something out of a movie about the French Foreign Legion. Local people called them Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick. As well as disrupting the sense of community enjoyed in the old terraces these new blocks might have been designed to assist crime with their walkways in the sky.

Even when they were brand new, these dwellings proved not fit for purpose. They were put up very quickly using prefabricated materials like a huge Lego kit. They were not as durable or well-designed as Lego.

The kind of concrete used caused condensation indoors so that the walls were dripping wet, causing respiratory problems in the elderly and in babies. Under floor heating was installed which could not be controlled by the tenants. Tenants were often baked to a frazzle and faced with huge fuel bills that they could not pay. A friend of mine lived in a council property in Hulme and found the place infested with cockroaches and beetles because the walls were built of straw.

I visited Manchester eight years ago and the area once covered by Fort Beswick had neat little rows of houses all on ground level. Although there was more space and the houses looked in good condition, they did rather remind me of the old terraced houses that were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not far from Beswick is the new home of Manchester City football club. The new stadium was built at a cost of GBP 110 million for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium is owned by the City Council and leased by the football club which, despite its previous lack of glamour, in 2008 became the richest club in the world after a takeover by an Arab consortium headed by Dr Al-Fahim, known as the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. A previous owner was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known to Mancunians as “Frank Sinatra”.

Manchester City FC signed an agreement with the Council in March 2010 to allow a £1 billion redevelopment led by architect Rafael Vinoly of land around the stadium and possible stadium expansion. In a spooky link with T Dan Smith, Vinoly was hiredby Wandsworth Council in London to develop the area around Battersea Power Station. The proposed development is supposed to generate 15,000 jobs. The network of tall curved blocks of offices will block the view of Sir Gilbert Scott’s industrial masterpiece. The accommodation is not intended to attract local families but hordes of predatory bankers with no children but easy access to the City and huge bonuses.

Manchester City’s stadium was a part of the massive Eastlands redevelopment. According to the consultative regeneration framework document, 3,000 jobs were created in ten years. This is low considering that at least 2,000 jobs were axed to cut public spending. The much-lauded regeneration of East Manchester never lived up to the hype of galvanising growth and job-creation in one of the city’s most deprived areas. New jobs tended to be poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs, servicing the consumption habits of middle classes. Only half of the hundreds of new jobs at supermarkets went to local residents. Save the Children found that 27 %per cent of children in Manchester were living in “severe poverty” – the worst record of any local authority in the country.

On my last visit to Manchester, the city centre was very different from the bleak place it was during the Thatcher years. The IRA did the city a favour by blowing up the ugly Arndale Centre and opening the way to better buildings. The new city centre reminded me of Seattle. There were luxury apartments and chic hotels. Even old churches and cotton mills had been converted into housing. Salford used to be grim but now it has luxury accommodation and an arts centre dedicated to LS Lowry. Somehow, it was still grim.

According to the Eastlands document, 5,000 extra homes have been built in East Manchester. However, the Manchester-Salford Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (whoever came up with that name!) between 2008 and 2009 demolished 2,200 more homes than it built at a cost of GBP 600 million. The project ground to halt, leaving a wasteland behind it.

How will Beswick, Bradford and Lower Openshaw compete with the new enterprise scheme at Manchester Airport (another arm of the council)? There are many empty office blocks in Manchester and but more will be built at the airport.

Some people will have made a lot of money out of continually knocking British cities down and re-building them. Not many of those people will go to prison like T Dan smith did. In 1985, Smith wrote that “Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain”.

Thatcherism and Poulsonism live on in all the British political parties.

The EU as Moral Tutor

On May 9 there was a court hearing concerning a domestic-violence case in the eastern region of Gegharkunik, one of Armenia’s most socially conservative areas. Activist Robert Aharonian condemned two women’s rights advocates operating under the auspices of Open Society Foundation, part of the Soros network, for promoting “European values”. A man in Armenia “has a right to slap his wife,” he claimed. He opposes all those diaspora Armenians who use NGO grants to operate in Armenia, and “advocate European perversion.” Allowing wives to report their husbands to the police, he asserted, ultimately breaks families apart. Armenia wants to join the EU so has to pay lip service to “European values”.

The EU presents itself as a moral model to the world. The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

One wonders how this will play given the results of the recent elections to the European Parliament (EP), where a number of far right parties scored big successes on low turnouts. Some wag answered the question:”What are European values?” thus. “Appeasement, bureaucracy, group-think, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and not having babies.”

The values that the EU claims for itself are set out in Article I-2 of the Constitution and are supposed to be common to all member states. These values are characterised by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men. Any European state wishing to become a member of the EU must respect these. Any member state not meeting these criteria can, in theory, be kicked out.

Free Movement

The Constitution guarantees the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the Union (the famous “four freedoms”) and strictly prohibits any discrimination on grounds of nationality.

Nationalism raised its ugly head in the EP elections and many who do not believe in the “free movement of persons” won seats. Last week, I wrote about the problems many states will have because of declining fertility rates. If Europeans are not having enough babies, they will have to import workers to do the dirty jobs and to pay into their pension fund. Even when they admit this, right-wingers, like the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, do not like it: “Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily? It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in…that would be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization.”

If one looks at the treatment of Roma in Belfast as well as Bucharest, one can see that even the free movement of EU citizens within the EU is not universally welcomed. Many people in Western Europe feel little kinship with Bulgaria and Romania, which is why most west European governments limited the right to work of Bulgarians and Romanians.

One Spaniard was not too happy about the freedom of Britons to move around Europe: “I used to live on a beautiful section of coast. Now I live next to a nasty urbanization, full of English people who buy from themselves, drink English beer in English bars, visit English doctors and eat an abomination called Pukka Pies. Their refusing to learn even the most basic of Spanish is famous here, and even if I wanted to go to ‘The Queen Vic’, I won’t because they only have menus in English and German.”

Extraordinary Rendition

Many EU states helped with the movement of people when GW Bush wanted to torture them. A report published in 2013 by the Open Society entitled Globalizing Torture: CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition revealed that, of pre-2004 EU states, only three – France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands –did not cooperate with the rendition programme, in which suspects were picked off the streets and secretly flown from country to country to be tortured. Ireland, Finland and Denmark allowed US agents to transfer terror suspects secretly at their airports. Sweden arranged for suspects to be flown directly to Mubarak’s soundproof cells in Egypt. The UK government helped with every aspect of rendition, from arresting suspects to submitting questions for interrogation.

At the time the report was written, legal challenges to secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations were pending against Italy, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania before the European Court of Human Rights.

 

The Open Society report concludes: “by enlisting the participation of dozens of foreign governments in these violations, the United States further undermined longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law—including, in particular, the norm against torture.” How does that fit with European values?

 

Corruption

Many Sri Lankans take a masochistic pride in the corruption of their politicians. Sorry chaps, but Sri Lankans are mere minnows compared to the Grand Panjandrums of Europe. The human rights of Europeans are seriously undermined by the endemic graft and thievery within the EU.

Some people blame this on enlargement – things got worse when we let those dodgy eastern Europeans in. Optimists hope that the magic wand of western European values will reduce the corruption of these shady newcomers and one day do the same for the Western Balkans and Turkey, and perhaps even Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

Unfortunately, the really big corruption is in the older member states and the culprits are senior statesmen.

Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor for sixteen years. He took two million in illegal donations. When he was exposed, he refused to reveal donors’ names for fear of revealing the favours they had bought. Gerhard Schröder guaranteed a billion-euro loan to Gazprom for the building of a Baltic pipeline. A few weeks after leaving government, he was working for Gazprom at a salary larger than the one he received as Chancellor. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen two presidents of the Republic in succession forced to resign under a cloud of corruption.

 

Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest. Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly took some $20 million from Gaddafi for the electoral campaign that won him the presidency. Christine Lagarde, who now heads the IMF, is under interrogation for her role in the award of €420 million in “compensation” to a friend of Sarkozy, Bernard Tapie, a well-known crook with a prison record. The socialist minister for the budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, had €15 million in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.

In Britain, Blair lied to Parliament about £1 million paid into party coffers by racing car magnate Bernie Ecclestone, currently under indictment in Bavaria for bribes of €33 million. Currently, Blair takes cash from a South Korean oil company run by a convicted felon with interests in Iraq and the feudal dynasty of Kuwait. He also does PR for the Nazarbaev dictatorship in Kazakhstan, whose human rights record would not meet EU standards.

In Ireland, the Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, as well as allowing Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for its torture programme, channelled into his bank account more than €400,000 in unexplained payments before becoming Taoiseach. He then voted himself the highest salary of any premier in Europe – €310,000, more even than the US president – a year before having to resign. Even after his disgrace, he wangled himself a handsome pension and generous expenses. In 2011, €8.8 million of taxpayers’ money was paid out in pensions for 109 former ministers, Ahern topping the list with €152,331.

On a public appearance at a ploughing contest, Bertie was described as adopting a demeanour of martyred vindication. Some commentators saw the public’s complaisance as evidence of the corrosive effect on the Irish nation of corruption at the top. Daniel Finn in the New Left Review, described Bertie Ahern as “A shrewd political operator with a gift for speaking at length without supplying his audience with any information”. At a corruption tribunal, Ahern’s testimony was described as “rambling and incoherent” and he changed his story so many times some of it had to be lies. Polls showed that less than one-third of voters believed him. Last November, a drunken man attacked Ahern with a crutch inside the Sean O’Casey bar just off O’Connell Street. Ahern declined to talk about the attack, which came three years after number of customers in another Dublin pub verbally abused him.

The European Value of Impunity

Bankers and leading politicians do not usually go to prison. Elites can enrich themselves without fear of retribution. Exposure ceases to matter very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes the only real value in political life. When it all goes wrong, the public has to pay by bailing out the banks and the state and by enduring austerity measures. Austerity is not thrift, which is generally seen as a morally virtuous. Austerity benefits the already very wealthy, who can profit from cheaper asset prices by picking them up now and selling them later. That is European value.

 

Democracy and Money

This article was published in The Nation on 04 February 2012 .

 

The corrupting effect of money on politics has been witnessed in many democracies. In the UK, it was cash for questions, cash for influence, cash for honours and cash for peerages followed by the unsavoury spectacle of MPs fiddling their expenses.

 

In October 1994, The Guardian alleged that lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of Harrods owner Mohammed Al -Fayed at GBP2,000 per question. There had previously been allegations against another two Conservative MPs, Graham Riddick and David Redinnick. The Downey report on the Hamilton affair also condemned conservative MPs Michael Brown, Sir Michael Grylls, Sir Andrew Bowden and Sir Peter Hordern.

 

Peerages and party funding

 

 

In the UK, bribery and corruption is not limited to the Conservative Party. New Labour came up with the spiffing wheeze of offering peerages to those who donated to party funds. In March 2006, several nominations for life peerages by Tony Blair were rejected by the Appointments Commission. They had lent, at the suggestion of Lord Levy (Blair’s tennis partner, a former pop impresario known as “Lord Cashpoint” – manager of luminaries such as Alvin Stardust and Bad Manners), large sums of money to the Labour Party. There was a long and involved police investigation during which many MPs, including Blair (three times), were questioned. Levy was arrested. The Labour Party acknowledged that it had taken loans worth $24.5 million from individuals, more than three times what it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the $31 million Labour said it had spent on the May 2005 elections. The case was eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service but the Labour Party’s funds were disastrously hit by returning the loans and Blair’s own reputation was further undermined.

 

 

Veiled reforms

 

 

Also questioned by police was Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt. Hewitt was also one of the MPs named in the 2010 sting into political lobbying by Channel 4. Hewitt appeared to claim that she was paid £3,000 a day to help a client obtain a key seat on a Government advisory group.

 

 
While in charge of the health service, Hewitt pushed ‘reforms’ to privatise it. In January 2008, it was announced that Hewitt had been appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest pharmacists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven, a private equity which owns 37 private hospitals. Her predecessor, Alan Milburn, (he once ran a small radical bookshop in Newcastle called Days of Hope – known locally as Haze of Dope), has joined Beckham, Britney and Beyonce as a well-paid advisor to Pepsi-Co. Milburn also became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and works 18 days a year advising Cinven. The revolving door between the government and civil service and such companies surely must qualify as corruption.

 

 
Not many UK citizens would vote for the privatisation of the NHS. That does not stop their elected representatives selling it off for a fast buck.

 

 

Corporate interests

 

 

In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots and to ensure ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘earmarking’. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.
In 2002, investigative journalist Greg Palast published a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The book focuses on the 2000 US presidential election and provides great detail on the methods used to prevent many black voters from voting. Chapters are available in PDF on the internet. One of the most illuminating chapters is entitled The Bushes and the Billionaires who Love Them.

 

 
(http://web.archive.org/web/20050120154301/http://www.gregpalast.com/bestdemocracymoneyc
anbuychapter2.pdf)

 

 
Palast writes: “The Fortunate Son rode right into the White House on a snorting porker stuffed with nearly half a billion dollars: My calculation of the suffocating plurality of cash from Corporate America (‘hard’ money, ‘soft’ money, ‘parallel’ spending and other forms of easy squeezy) that smothered Al Gore runs to $447 million. They called it an election but it looked more like an auction.”

 

 
Super PACs

 

 

In the 2012, US presidential election cycle alone, political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs have spent over $25 million so far. Move to Amend is a national coalition of people and organisations working to amend the US Constitution to explicitly state that a corporation is not a person with Constitutional rights and money is not equal to free speech.

 
The problem is compounded by globalisation. Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.

Lanka’s oil rich hopes

This article was published in The Nation on November 20 2011

 

In his treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principle architect of OPEC, wrote: “Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.”

 

Once again, fantasies of Sri Lanka becoming oil-rich are bubbling to the greasy surface.

 

Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of oil a year, which is used to generate electricity as well as for transport, every year. This used to cost around $800 million a year. In 2005, it cost $1.64 billion. In 2006, higher international prices took the bill to $2.2 billion. Add to this, $19 million per month in subsidies, the knock-on effect of transport costs on prices and the never-ending cost of war and reconstruction and one can see why the government would like to have its own oil.

 

India started exploring the Cauvery Basin in the Palk Straits as long ago as 1954, drilling 100 test wells. From 2000, India started production from fields close to Sri Lanka at the rate of 1,000 barrels per day. In the late 1970s, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, assisted by US and Russian companies, drilled seven test wells on and offshore in the Gulf of Mannar Basin without success. India’s success encouraged Sri Lanka to try again. The Cauvery and Gulf of Mannar basins are said to be associated with rift complexes of the Late-Jurassic-Cretaceous Age and have the potential to yield 100 million barrels.

 
Gamble

 

An oil bonanza cannot be confidently predicted without drilling. Offshore wells require more than $10 million each and the investor loses it all if the well is dry. It will be at least five years before there is any return on the investment.

 

The Director General of Petroleum Resources, Dr Neil R de Silva said in January 2007 that the picture was still “fuzzy” about how viable the fields were. “One of the requirements oil companies would be expected to meet in getting a licence for oil exploration would be a benefits plan – this would ensure employment for Sri Lankans and enable Sri Lankan manufacturers and service providers to take part on a competitive basis to supply goods and services.” He added that they must be competitive, efficient and trained. How can that work? He conceded that there was a serious shortage of professionals to work in the field and that the industry needs to train a certified labour force. There are no petroleum professionals coming through the education system.

 

The number of local people employed after the construction phase of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline was negligible in Cameroon and around 350 in Chad. In Ecuador, 50,000 new jobs a month were promised; there have been only 9,000 new jobs so far, mostly unskilled and temporary.

 

De Silva gave the Sunday Observer an update in March 2011. He did not sound very positive to me: “with the available data it is not possible to estimate the amount of oil in the Mannar Basin confidently… At the beginning of the oil production process, the Sri Lankan Government’s share would be 15% and Cairn Lanka’s 85% … As the years go by, Sri Lanka’s share will increase to … 85% while Cairn Lanka’s share will come down to …15%”.

 

Oil and corruption

 

As long ago as 2004, Transparency International estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing and oil seemed to guarantee corruption. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen were highly corrupt. Public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by vanishing revenues.

 
Inequality

 

Even if Sri Lanka’s oil exploration is successful, it is unlikely that many citizens will benefit. Venezuela is to some extent an exception in that government policy has been to use oil to improve the lot of the people as a whole. Even with Chavez’s reforms, problems persist and Caracas is one of the three most violent cities in the world.

 

Prof. Michael Ross of UCLA produced a chart mapping oil sales against literacy and malnutrition. Every 5% rise in oil exports was matched by a three-month fall in life-expectancy and a one-point rise in childhood malnutrition. Sri Lanka currently enjoys good WHO indicators, but child malnutrition figures are causing concern. This could get worse with the ‘benefits’ of oil.

 
Terrorism and environment

 

Spillages from sabotage sometimes occur. In Colombia and Nigeria, guerrillas persistently targeted pipelines. In 1995, the LTTE attacked CPC refinery and oil storage installations in Colombo causing several deaths and massive fires in the storage areas. Security fears undermine human rights. In more recent times the LTTE air force targeted oil installations.
The seismic vibrations generated by drilling can adversely affect buildings and the chemicals used can also deplete aquatic life in rivers and streams. Pollution can occur because of human error, sudden rupture of pipelines, or instrument failures.

 
Conclusion

 

So, does Sri Lanka want to be a nation where foreigners call the shots – a polluted nation, plagued by poverty and inequality; where corruption, dynastic elites and nepotism compromise good governance and erode human rights?

 

Does Sri Lanka deserve the blessing of oil?

Corruption in Irish Politics

This article was published in the Island on April 9 2008

 

 

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern has announced that he will resign in May. Mr Ahern, 56, has been Taoiseach (Irish for premier) since June 1997 and has been a member of the Irish Parliament for 31 years.

Patrick Bartholomew Ahern was born on September 12th, 1951 in Drumcondra – the area in the Dublin Central constituency which would later become the centre of his political heartland. He was a member of the Dublin City Council from 1979 to 1991 and served as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1986.

Mr Ahern was appointed Minister for Labour in Charles Haughey’s Cabinet in 1987, a post he held until he became Minister for Finance in 1991. On June 26th, 1997, at the age of 45, he became the youngest ever Taoiseach.

His greatest achievements were the peace settlement in Northern Ireland and the building of prosperity in a country that had long known poverty and even famine. It is unfortunate that he should leave office under a cloud.

The resignation announcement came a day after Mr Ahern began a court challenge to limit the work of a public inquiry probing planning corruption in the 1990s.

Gerry Adams, leader of SinnFein, said: “What we saw today was a Taoiseach bowing out in a very gracious and graceful way and we should look at the good things that he has done as well as the not so good things that he has done.”

Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party said, “I came to the conclusion many months ago that Mr. Ahern would find it impossible to continue in office because of the mounting conflicts and contradictions between the statements he originally made about his financial affairs and the evidence uncovered by the Mahon tribunal.”

On September 26 2007, he won a vote of confidence by 81 votes to 76 in the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, at the same time as he was changing his story- “rambling and incoherent” was how the opposition leader described the testimony- to the Mahon Tribunal on corruption in public life. Ahern’s majority party Fianna Fail, governs in a coalition with the Green Party led by John Gormley. Gormley’s support is not unconditional. He did not like the original wording of the confidence motion because it did not show support for the Mahon tribunal but did extol the “enormous contribution” made by Ahern on Northern Ireland, the economy, social partnership and the State’s infrastructure. Gormley had it changed so that confidence was affirmed in the tribunal’s work and expressed support for the government but not specifically for Ahern.

The opposition Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, said, “He has the opportunity to go and clear this up. The truth is always simple.” He added: “I find it quite extraordinary that a person who has been eulogised by the media for his mastery of detail, for some strange reason, cannot remember extraordinary amounts of money – paid in cash – moving through his accounts.” Kenny said there was now a situation whereby a witness before a tribunal, testifying on oath, “is continually changing his story”.

The Green Party, which sets great store by ethical behaviour, has been accused by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore of responsibility for a significant shift in the political culture of the State because of what he termed “an extraordinary abdication of responsibility” on the issue of standards in public office.

Gilmore said Ahern had raised the spectre of Charles Haughey’s premiership of the early 1980s. Ahern was a protégé of Charlie Haughey but generally thought to be more honest. It would be hard to be less honest than Charlie. Charlie did great things for the arts, encouraging, with tax incentives, many prestigious writers and performers from all over the world to make Ireland their home, but he also did great things for his bank balance.

He managed to stretch his relatively modest salary to purchase a historic mansion, an island, racehorses, a yacht, a valuable art collection and to run a helicopter and an opulent and loquacious mistress. It was proved that he had received millions from various benefactors. The supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne of Dunne’s Stores, on a cocaine-fuelled night in Florida, confessed about the bribes to a hooker 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). Saudi businessman Mahmoud Fustok paid Haughey £50,000 to support applications for Irish citizenship. Allied Irish Banks wrote off his million pound overdraft. Charlie said he couldn’t remember any of this.

All this was known to the voters who affectionately regarded Charlie as “a cute hoor”, which could be translated as an astute but loveable rogue. Eventually, though, the 50% income tax rate eroded their affection for him and his calls to voters to tighten their belts in troubled times did not go down well. He had a convenient heart attack when he was called before the corruption tribunal and died of prostate cancer before he could be punished.

Bertie is a less cosmopolitan figure than Charlie but he is unusual in Irish politicians in defying the once all-powerful Catholic Church by living openly with a woman not his wife. His daughter, Cecilia is a best-selling novelist, married to a member of the boy-band Westlife, who has just given birth to celebrity twins.

There is no dispute about the fact that when he was minister of finance Ahern took large sums of cash from businessmen on four different occasions. Mr Justice Brian McCracken set out the standard in relation to payments to Haughey: It is, he wrote, “quite unacceptable that . . . any member of the Oireachtas should receive gifts of this nature . . . If such gifts were to be permissible, the potential for bribery and corruption would be enormous. If politicians are to give an effective service to all their constituents, or to all the citizens of the State, they must not be under a financial obligation to some constituents or some citizens only.”

Gilmore said: “The scale may well be different from that of Mr Charles Haughey. But scale does not alter standards. It may well have happened at a time of change for the Taoiseach. But circumstances do not alter standards,” said Mr Kenny. Broadening his attack, he said the public should be concerned about the affair because efforts to have a better, more honest society should always be led by the Taoiseach. “But that is now an impossibility,” he noted.

The “time of change” referred to was the collapse of Mr Ahern’s marriage. He said none of the issues being investigated by the Mahon tribunal would have occurred if he had not separated from his wife, Miriam. “I think you would see that people who are separated have to do different things at different times to survive and to move on and I did the same,” he told journalists. He told the Oireachtas, “I have given my evidence as honestly as I can and to the best of my ability. The human mind makes mistakes of recollections, forgets details and mingles events. That is life.” A similar kind of amnesia seems to have affected him that affected Haughey but Bertie is much younger. The response of the assembled Oireachtas was described as polite but not enthusiastic.

Ahern wrote an article for the Irish Independent justifying his actions: “The fundamental root of each of these lodgments was the conclusion of my marital separation and my efforts to put my life back in order after that separation. I have explained these matters to the Irish people and I think people understand the situation I was in which led to the actions I took.

To many, the way I dealt with these issues seems unorthodox. That is because my lifestyle in that difficult period was unorthodox. Many who have gone through the trauma of marital separation and legal proceedings will understand the position I was in. Mine was not a perfect life, nor a perfect family and matrimonial environment, but as I emerged from that period I was assisted by friends who I later repaid in full with interest. My situation was normalised over a short period after the conclusion of my separation”.

Bertie knows that he is (or has been) the most popular taoiseach ever and has (or had) the self-confidence that goes with his recent general election victory and his contribution to bringing peace and prosperity to the island which is not one nation. “When you’re at my level, there’s always somebody out to trip you up.”

At the national ploughing competition, on his first public outing since the confidence vote, the he adopted a demeanour of martyred vindication. He believed the nation believed him.

Fintan O’Toole described the situation well when he wrote that the substance of Bertie’s explanation was not important to the public:” Its plausibility mattered more than its ultimate veracity. If we were to have the wool pulled over our eyes, we wanted it to be fine merino rather than coarse yarn. If we were going to be regaled with fictions, we’d have liked them to be Jane Austen rather than Jeffrey Archer.”

Polls showed that fewer than 33% believed Bertie’s story, but, nonetheless, also showed a sharp rise in support for the government and a fall in support for the opposition. The Irish Times opined that the polls were “a poor reflection of ourselves”.

As with Charlie, things changed for Bertie. The Irish economic boom is slowing down. Soaring house prices have for years been the main sign of the success of the Celtic Tiger. Now house prices are falling and the construction industry is in trouble, which will increase unemployment. The US sub-prime fiasco has had a knock-on effect on Irish mortgages. Ireland has the highest cost of living in the EU. This was not a good time for the government to decide to increase ministerial salaries. Bertie himself got a rise of €38,000 which has led to widespread indignation. More recent poll results show that support for Fianna Fáil has suffered a massive decline among working-class voters, particularly in Dublin, and there has been a corresponding rise in support for Fine Gael and Labour among these disaffected voters.

Announcing his resignation he said: “While I will be the first to admit that I’ve made mistakes in my life and in my career, one mistake I’ve never made was to enrich myself by misusing the trust of the people. I have never received a corrupt payment and I’ve never done anything to dishonour any office that I’ve ever held.”

Time, and the Mahon Tribunal, will tell.

 

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