If we don't point the finger, then we stand accused


Hackneyed phrases from those in power for the last decade should make us focus on what they really mean

WE MUST put the past behind us (as opposed to its usual position in front of us). We must move on. We must think about the future going backward – sorry, going forward. Let’s not indulge in the blame game. Let’s have no finger pointing.

As George Orwell reminded us, cliches usually mask bad politics. The hackneyed nature of the phrases we hear with increasing frequency from those who have held political and economic power for the last decade should make us pay attention to what lies behind them. That underlying message is this: forget about how and why this mess was created, and pull together to get us out of it.

It’s a superficially attractive line. It is also bunkum. Identifying the people and the processes that led to disaster will not in itself make everything better. But we can’t start to climb out of the hole until we understand who dug it, and why.

There’s a simple reason for this: the crisis is moral as well as economic. It has been shaped by the absence, not just of common sense, but of a sense of right and wrong. Niall Fitzgerald, perhaps the most successful Irish business manager of recent decades, put this with succinct clarity when speaking to students at the University of Limerick last week.

Fitzgerald, a former chief executive of Unilever, was a non-executive director of Bank of Ireland in the 1990s. He told the students that, a fortnight ago, he had an “uncomfortable” exchange over dinner with friends, all of whom still hold similar posts.

“I told them: ‘You have to make a choice. Did you not know what was going on? If you didn’t, you must ask yourself, are you a competent director? And if you did know, you were complicit in recklessness and fraud. So which is it? Because there isn’t anything in between’. ”

Fitzgerald went on to suggest that those who are “not prepared to be accountable” should have “no places on the boards [of companies] . . . until you own up to it, you can’t get the seeds of the corrections you need”.

This is true in every country, but especially so in Ireland. It matters in a very particular way here because the root of our home-grown crisis is precisely a culture of “moving on”.

Irish politics, Irish business and Irish society in general have been far too forgiving of incompetence, corruption, fraud and fecklessness. I’ve written many times that what is distinctive about Ireland is not that it is more corrupt than many other European countries, but that there is no price to be paid for getting caught.

At every level, people simply get away with it. Cheat on your taxes? Here’s an amnesty for you. Still cheating? Pay a penalty and there’s no prosecution. Rake in millions while you’re in public office? You were a patriot to your fingertips. Waste vast amounts of public money on hare-brained projects? You get reappointed to the Cabinet. Get caught lying and cheating? You top the poll. Admit to taking “dig-outs” while minister for finance? Here’s another five-year term as taoiseach.

The result of all of this has been, of course, that nothing changes. When there are no personal consequences, the line between ethical, public-spirited behaviour and the cynical or irresponsible abuse of power becomes ever thinner. The basic social mechanism of punishing the bad and rewarding the good ceases to function.

You end up with incompetent and amoral governance in both public and private spheres.

This is the Orwellian function of the current talk of “moving on” and “going forward”. It means the precise opposite of what it purports to mean. When no one is accountable and everyone gets away with it, we never move on. We don’t go forward, we move round and round in a vicious circle of low standards, engendering cynicism, which tolerates low standards, and so on.

Brian Cowen’s pathetic excuse for an apology on the Late Late Show – “if people want me to apologise, I apologise in the event that people think I did something purposely wrong” – was eloquent testimony to the continuation of this culture. What we are seeing is a systematic attempt to make sure that as much as possible stays the same and that as many as possible of the people who caused the disaster stay in power. The earthquake may flatten the little houses, but the tall towers must remain standing.

If we forgive what has been inflicted on the country by its governing class, there’s nothing that could be unforgivable. If we don’t point fingers at what has happened and who is responsible, we will learn nothing. Without blame, there will be no shame. Shamelessness has been this country’s besetting sin.

If you’re at the right level in society, you can be a fool or a crook (or in Fitzgerald’s more decorous terms, incompetent or complicit), and still be a great fellow.

As the past is wiped clean, we are forever in a new Garden of Eden where the world begins again and our leaders disport themselves, naked and unashamed.

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