Ireland still great place for shysters and scam merchants
The late Larry Hagman gave us the greatest single moment in Irish television history, and it wasn’t in Dallas. In a surreal passage in Charles Haughey’s self-regarding film My Ireland, Hagman, in a JR Ewing-style ten-gallon hat, chats with the great leader at a racecourse. Suddenly, he reaches into his pocket, takes out a dud thousand-dollar bill with JR’s face on it and gives it, with a knowing leer, to Haughey. We knew then that JR was truly one of us. And he’d still be at home here, for this remains a great place for shysters and scam merchants.
Last week, the Labour TD Robert Dowds got figures on conviction rates for white-collar crimes. In the three years after a crash caused in large part by abysmal business ethics, convictions fell dramatically. In 2004, there were 467 convictions for white-collar crimes; in 2010, there were just 178. Is this because the shysters took their fingers out of the till? No – the number of recorded white-collar offences rose by 33 per cent in the same period.
Nine out of 10 known white-collar crimes fail to result in a conviction. In part, this is because there has been no serious effort to create a fraud squad with the expertise to investigate complex cases. The fraud squad has not a single full-time lawyer attached to it and just two qualified accountants.
But there’s an even bigger issue here – the state of the law itself. One of the big questions citizens have been asking since the crash is – how come, to adapt a famous statement by Michael McDowell, none of these people ever get to hang their Armani jackets on the back of a cell door in Mountjoy? Any seriously reforming government would have set up a task force to transform Irish corporate law into a powerful protector of the public interest.
Instead, what we have is the continuation of a beast called the Corporate Law Review Group. This is a statutory body, made up of fine and worthy people with considerable expertise and undoubted integrity, most of them from the legal and corporate worlds. And it is a long-running disaster.
The CLRG is headed by Thomas Courtney, a corporate lawyer with the ubiquitous Arthur Cox legal firm. He is a highly distinguished and capable man. But he operates within a mentality that makes it almost impossible for the CLRG to react to the scale and toxicity of white-collar crime in Ireland.
Firstly, the brief of the CLRG is and continues to be a classic expression of the boomtime creed of “light-touch” regulation. Its mission statement is to “promote enterprise, facilitate commerce, simplify the operation of the Companies Acts, enhance corporate governance and encourage commercial probity”. Note the order of priorities – the CLRG is to serve “commerce” and “enterprise” first, probity second.