No room for complacency

Thu, Mar 29, 2012, 01:00

DOLLOPS OF humility and contrition would provide a welcome balance at the Fine Gael Ardfheis in Dublin this weekend. Delegates will have much to celebrate, having comprehensively displaced Fianna Fáil as the dominant force in Irish politics.

But they should recognise that this status does not sanction a “business as usual” approach. Tribunals have identified a culture of systemic corruption and political abuse that must be eradicated. In relation to local planning in particular, only a difference of degree separated the unethical behaviour of elected representatives of the two major parties.

Severe damage has been done to the reputation of the State. The murk surrounding business and politics undermines Ireland’s international reputation and has reduced inward investment. Necessary changes will be difficult to implement because of the clientelist nature of the political system. But unethical behaviour must be rooted out if public confidence in politicians and the political process is to be established. Old, devious, back-room ways can no longer be tolerated.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny finds himself in the fortunate position of leading a Government with the largest majority in the history of the State, while being in undisputed control of his party. He is also popular with the public. If he wishes to embellish his position in difficult economic times, an unprecedented opportunity exists to revitalise the democratic system and reform politics and public life. What the late Garret FitzGerald offered through a constitutional crusade, he may surpass by way of ethical reforms.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has already challenged Mr Kenny over the party’s lack of rigour in responding to last year’s findings by the Moriarty tribunal, particularly in connection with Denis O’Brien. The Mahon tribunal has also generated difficulties for the party. Sources of party funding in advance of the general election remain hidden. These issues cry out for clarity and remedial action. The electorate rejected Fianna Fáil. But how can the public benefit from that action if Fine Gael operates the same old system?

There have been sporadic signs of reform. There have also been signs of political weakness and ineptitude. Efforts to buy off turf-cutters have been as ineffective as the campaign to register septic tanks. Implementation of a household charge has been marred by confusion and incompetence. A promised water charge is still awaited.

Fine Gael has been in office for a year and there will be an understandable determination to mark that achievement at the weekend. With local elections two years away, there will also be pressure on Ministers to go easy on unpopular measures. That would be a great mistake.

The most immediate challenge facing the party and the Government, however, involves a referendum on the EU fiscal treaty. Initial defeat of the Lisbon Treaty blighted and shortened the career of Brian Cowen.

The Taoiseach should be very afraid.