An echo from a grubby past

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 07:30

‘Low standards in high places”, was the accusation hurled by the late George Colley against his political rival Charlie Haughey. It had little effect. The culture of the time saw blind eyes being turned to the sudden acquisition of wealth as much as to mistreatment of women and the sexual abuse of children. Members of the Garda Síochána and State officials knew what was – and was not – expected of them. White-collar crime operated largely below the radar and political influence was exercised on a nod and wink basis. Anything short of overt criminality was regarded as permissible.

Since then, the findings of a number of tribunals, public outrage and reforming legislation have altered ethical requirements. But further progress is needed. In particular, an enduring sense of entitlement and immunity from prosecution has to be eradicated and the law applied equally to all.

A two-tier system of accountability can be as disagreeable as a two-tier health system. But the public has had to endure both. Minor and major offences took place and few were held to account. Those politicians responsible for reform were themselves compromised by a system of expenses and allowances that encouraged abuse. Unvouched expenses offered them a second, lucrative, income stream. Many availed of it before the system was finally abolished in the last budget. A sense of financial proportion in making claims was expected, but temptation and a sense of entitlement proved too much for some.

That misplaced sense of entitlement finally did for Ivor Callely, former minister of state, TD and senator. Never far from a whiff of sulphur, he regarded having his house decorated free by a major building company as normal. On being nominated to the Seanad by Bertie Ahern he set about exploiting “anomalies in the expenses regime” and claimed €80,000 in travelling expenses to his holiday home in west Cork over a two-year period. Found guilty of misrepresenting his normal place of residence by Seanad colleagues, he successfully challenged their findings in court. In the process, however, details of other claims involving telephone expenses emerged. Gardaí were finally called in.

Having protested his innocence for years, Mr Callely pleaded guilty and offered as an excuse an entitlement to the money. That self-serving explanation failed to impress Judge Mary Ellen Ring. She decided the breach of trust warranted a five-month prison term. In doing so, she followed a precedent set in Britain where a number of politicians had been jailed for fiddling their expenses. The public welcomed the outcome because, on this occasion, justice was seen to be done. Callely’s case represents an echo from a grubby past. It should serve as a warning to others.

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