A searing indictment of figures who dominated FF
OPINION: THE FINAL report of the planning tribunal represents a searing indictment of the leading figures in Fianna Fáil who ruled the country for two decades. It poses profound questions about the party’s continued viability as a serious political force.
The litany of misbehaviour is astonishing. One former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was found to have lied to the tribunal over the source of IR£165,000 lodged in bank accounts. In a scathing summing-up, the report said much of Ahern’s evidence “was deemed by the tribunal to have been untrue”.
Another former taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was found to have behaved in an “entirely inappropriate” manner in joining Ahern to pressurise businessman Owen O’Callaghan to contribute money to Fianna Fáil. The behaviour of both is described as “an abuse of political power and government authority”.
Former Fianna Fáil minister and European commissioner Pádraig Flynn was found to have “wrongly and corruptly” obtained money from businessman Tom Gilmartin for the Fianna Fail party and, having been paid IR£50,000, proceeded to utilise the money for his personal benefit.
“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,” according to the second paragraph in the 3,211-page report.
The latest report comes on top of the shocking disclosures in the Moriarty tribunal reports about the vast sums obtained by another former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Charles Haughey and the findings in an earlier planning tribunal report about the behaviour of former senior minister Ray Burke.
It is an indictment of the Irish political system that such grave findings have been made against so many of the leading figures who dominated Fianna Fáil from the 1980s onwards. Given the number of powerful politicians involved it is hardly a surprise that the latest report concluded:
“Although that corruption was occasionally the subject of investigation or adverse comment, those involved operated with a justified sense of impunity and invincibility. There was little appetite on the part of the State’s political or investigative authorities to take the steps necessary to combat it effectively or to sanction those involved.”
If there is a crumb of comfort in the report for Fianna Fáil it is that the current leader Micheál Martin is not the subject of any adverse findings. The report does refer to the £5,000 political donation he received from Cork businessman Owen O’Callaghan during the 1991 local election campaign but no negative conclusions are drawn.
The report has severe things to say about senior government ministers who engaged in a “sustained and virulent attack” on the tribunal while it was inquiring into Bertie Ahern’s financial affairs in 2007 and 2008. “It was entirely inappropriate for members of the Government to launch such unseemly and partisan attacks against a tribunal of inquiry appointed by both Houses of the Oireachtas to inquire into serious concerns regarding corruption in public life.”
The current relevance is that some of the current members of the depleted Fianna Fáil parliamentary party engaged in those attacks.
However, Martin was one of the ministers who resisted the intense pressure at the time to get involved in general criticism and that has certainly saved him some embarrassment.
That said, he faces enormous difficulty in dragging himself and his party out of the mire. For a start Martin is in the embarrassing position that he managed to serve loyally under Haughey, Reynolds and Ahern, and alongside Flynn and Burke, without appearing to demur at any stage about what was happening in Fianna Fáil.
He is now leading a party battered and bruised by the electoral disaster it suffered last year as a result of the economic mismanagement of the country during the Ahern era. Martin served in cabinet right through that period so he has the twin difficulty of trying to explain that as well.
The obvious thing for Martin to do is to put as much distance between the current parliamentary party and Bertie Ahern. That will require him to disown the former leader, as well as figures like Flynn who have brought disgrace on the party.
Opponents of Fianna Fáil will point to the fact that Ahern did precisely the same in relation to Charles Haughey when reports first began to emerge about the payments made by Ben Dunne to Haughey back in 1996.
Martin will have to find a more definitive means of closing the door on the Haughey era. At a minimum that will mean the expulsion of Ahern from the party, as well as sincere words of contrition for the standards that were tolerated for so long.
While most of the payments to senior Fianna Fáil politicians investigated by the tribunal occurred in the early 1990s, Ahern’s controversial evidence about his financial affairs was given much more recently. That sucked a number of contemporary party figures into defending the indefensible and that is why they will have their work cut out to put as much distance as they can between themselves and their former leader.
Not all of the embarrassing revelations in the report can be laid at Fianna Fáil’s door. A number of Dublin Fine Gael councillors came badly out of the tribunal as well. While the party didn’t handle the issue of planning in Dublin in the early 1990s very well it doesn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of senior figures being involved.
One of the points made in the report is that the corruption exposed by the tribunal has seriously undermined the public’s faith in democracy and in its public officials, whether elected or appointed. “This is doubtlessly attributable to both the scale of that corruption and the fact that it involved several high-ranking public officials.”
It went on to express the belief that the vast majority of public officials perform their functions with the utmost integrity.
“Those who believe that those in the public sphere are corrupt do a great disservice to these individuals,” said the report, which made the even more important point that such an attitude actually fostered lower standards in public life on “a mistaken assumption that everyone is doing it”.
Everybody in public life, and not just Fianna Fáil, has a duty to take action to restore public faith in democratic politics. The voters too have a duty to take issues of integrity into account when voting in elections. It should not be forgotten that most of the leading figures exposed by the various tribunals had no difficulty in getting elected, usually at the top of the poll, even after information about their activities was put into the public domain. That should give every citizen some pause for thought.