Toxic culture of approval for fixers must end


Admiration for morally dubious characters who are seen as ‘great craic’ has been our downfall, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

TEFLON WASN’T discovered by Nasa, even though they used it. It was accidentally discovered by someone called Ray Plunkett in 1938, while he was trying to invent a new type of CFC refrigerant.

Instead, he created a waxy white substance that turned out to be the most slippery synthetic solid found up to that point.

It took 16 years before teflon first coated a frying pan, just a year less than it took to find that our very own teflon taoiseach really wasn’t the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all. Instead, he was just the most slippery, and possibly the most unacquainted not just with a bank account but with the truth.

It is hard not to be heartsick while reading even part of the Mahon tribunal report, or not to be furious at how much it cost and how long it took.

The real danger is that it will just deepen the cynicism of Irish people, who feel let down by virtually every institution at this stage.

True, the saga does also touch on campaigning individuals determined to bring about change, given that it was Colm Ó hEochaidh’s and Michael Smith’s original advertisement that set this particularly ponderous ball rolling.

But the overall feeling is one of grimy corruption, at times petty, at other times having far from petty consequences. It was the culture of bungs and bribes that led to some of the eyesores that now dot the landscape. People are living in buildings and estates that are unsafe, or lack vital amenities. It helped to fuel the property boom, and the consequences of that will see our children’s children still in hock.

One sentence from the recommendations caught my eye. “Although the tribunal recognises that corruption is most obviously a failing of individual morality, it believes that it is also a problem of systemic failure.”

Naturally, the report’s recommendations focus on regulation and legislation. However, there is something more to this sorry saga than just individual morality and failures of regulatory systems. It is a concept perhaps more slippery than teflon – the concept of culture.

How do individuals form their morality? Although the fear of getting caught plays a significant role in deterrence, it is not enough. For too long in Ireland, there has been a toxic culture of approval for those who knew someone who could “fix” things.

Part of it came from systems that did not work properly, so that “knowing someone” became a means of receiving things that people were entitled to anyway. But it went far deeper. Cutting corners and dodging regulations is often seen as smart, rather than immoral.

The old joke about the reason why Ireland’s official symbol is the harp because you get everywhere by pulling strings was too true to be really funny.

Fianna Fáil might have provided some of the most blatant examples, but can we really say that it was confined to one political party? Was it not something that permeated our society? Does it still?

That is why it is a great pity that Phil Hogan decided not to go ahead with an independent review of allegations of planning irregularities by Dublin and Cork city councils, as well as Meath, Galway and Cork county councils, not to mention Carlow.

A panel of planning experts had been created from which investigative teams were to be drawn, but now there will just be an internal review.

Certainly, Hogan can plead lack of money, but some money is well spent, provided it does not become an obscenity in itself, like the millions earned by certain individuals from the Mahon tribunal. Learning from the past in order to shape the future is vital.

The tribunal report makes far-reaching recommendations on everything from planning regulation to political finance and conflicts of interest. We have a sad history of letting recommendations fade away on shelves, rather than putting them into practice.

To take just one recommendation, are we likely to see legislation on gifts that predate or postdate a public official’s time in office any time soon? As the report rightly says, gifts received after leaving office can be as significant an influence on corruption as anything received while in office.

It is really important that the feeling of general disgust in this country does not just fuel cynicism, but a desire for real change. Changing a culture is not easy. Legislation can and should be drafted, but legislation can only be used to determine minimum levels of ethics, that is, to prevent abuse.

Encouraging people to maintain high levels of ethics, where a culture of service and transparency are voluntarily maintained, is a different matter. Leadership is vital. A high level of ethics is of course a matter of individual morality, but we are all influenced by the culture of our communities.

It is a long road from theoretically understanding ethical behaviour, to internalising it and acting as a role model for others. Visible activities are influenced by invisible assumptions and beliefs.

For too long, those invisible assumptions included admiration of those who were slippery enough to manage to avoid all manner of allegations sticking to them. They were “characters”, viewed as being “great craic”.

When we start admiring, and rewarding those who are ethical to the point of being boring, then we will know that all that money and all that time was not spent in vain.