A small price to pay?
POLITICS: Snouts in the Trough: Irish Politicians and Their Expenses, by Ken Foxe, Gill & Macmillan, 227pp, €16.99
DO THEY REALLY MATTER, these piffling sums? Now that we deal exclusively in billions, should we care that we paid €120 for the hire,from Hatitudes in Lucan, of hats for the Ascot races for John O’Donoghue, his wife and his private secretary? Or even that we paid €3,500 for the hire of limousines for the same trip? The €58,712 we forked out for renovations to the toilets in his Leinster House office when he was ceann comhairle – €15,000 each for two carpets to cushion his dainty feet – is admittedly a bit more substantial. And the cost of the so-called Ministerial Air Transport Service for ferrying senior politicians around Ireland and the world – close to €3 million a year – does begin to feel a little like serious money. But in the grand scheme of things, where one minor fluctuation in the bond market wipes out the contributions of another 1,000 taxpayers, is rage about politicians’ expenses anything more than an exercise in displacement?
It is certainly true that sometimes it is easier to focus our anger on the small things because the big ones are just too damn big. The human mind is not easy with numbers that contain too many zeros. Hubert Butler, writing of the vastly more serious question of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children who were deported from Paris to Nazi camps, wrote that “their sufferings are too great and protracted to be imagined, and the range of human sympathy is narrowly restricted. Had four or five children only been killed or burned . . . we would have responded emotionally and their fate would have been carved on a marble tablet”.
Stunned and bewildered as we are, there is a certain comfort in dancing on O’Donoghue’s hats. (As you ask, a white straw boater for the man himself, an orange number for his wife, Kate, and a buttermilk-coloured piece for the private secretary. Should a white boater hitherto be referred to as a comhairle’s ceann?) Yet the extravagance of politicians, and especially of ministers, does matter. The profligacy that is enumerated in such exhaustive (and exhausting) detail by Ken Foxe, public-affairs correspondent of the Sunday Tribune, is not just a minor irritation. It is a symptom of a much deeper malaise. The limos ferrying ministers between terminals at Heathrow, the helicopters flying them to constituency meetings, the $410 of our money that Mary Harney spent having her hair done: these things are eloquent. They speak of three things that have had disastrous consequences for Ireland.
The first is a feckless attitude to public money. We have developed very thick hides, but some of the figures Foxe retails still have the power to shock. You don’t have to be a pious Catholic to find something blasphemous in the carry-on of our betters who flocked to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. In all the President, Mary McAleese, and her husband, plus Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney, Enda Kenny and half a dozen advisers managed to clock up a bill of almost €20,000 for a single night’s stay at Grand Hotel de la Minerve, in Rome. It is hard to know which is harder to stomach: the insult to Christian spirituality or the insult to the Irish people. The complete absence of any sense of responsibility for the use of public resources is breathtaking.
The second thing that the expenses extravaganza reveals is a deep contempt for that same Irish people. Those in power imagined themselves to be above the rest of us – often literally. Chauffeur-driven ministerial cars were no longer good enough; after all, the wheels still had to touch the ground. The mania for helicopters and jets (either private jets or first-class seats) grew out of a sense that ministers could not be expected to share the same space as the plebs.
A sense of entitlement oozed from every pore of the system. As Jim Glennon, then a Fianna Fáil TD, put it when explaining why the Government needed to spend at least €40 million on a new top-of-the-range jet, the old one was “a source of extreme embarrassment for our leader and the nation”. What is notable in this classic piece of banana republicanism is the complete identification of the leader – Bertie – and the nation. Bertie was embarrassed that his jet had a few miles on the clock, so the rest of us were automatically assumed to be mortified on his behalf. We couldn’t have the Masther going around in a gammy Gulfstream.
The third serious issue wrapped up in this lavishness is what it tells us about the way our political leaders came to identify themselves – or at least whom they identified with. This was a period of naked adoration of the super-rich. The trappings of wealth were also taken to be the trappings of social usefulness. The extreme wealth of some individuals was proof of the health of a society. The political system was dominated by this thinking, and it was unsurprising that those who controlled it should want to emulate as much of the lifestyle of the rich and famous as they could get away with: to stay in the same hotels, to eat in the same restaurants, to buzz around in helicopters like their heroes. Nor is it surprising that the minister who most enthusiastically worshipped the wealthy, Mary Harney, should have been the worst offender.
The consequences of these three things were not trivial. The fecklessness with public money was the same attitude that squandered the fruits of the boom on a grander scale. The contempt for the plebs expressed itself in a deeper disdain for the idea that we might be in the business of creating a republic of equals. And the personal identification with the super-rich manifested itself not just in outrageous hotel bills but in an ultimate identification of the interests of Ireland with those of a small number of landowners, developers and bankers.
Ken Foxe did excellent work as a journalist in doggedly pursing many of these details through freedom-of-information requests. He continues that work in Snouts in the Trough, which brings together and amplifies the details of the conduct of our spendthrift leaders. The book will stand as a damning dissection of a culture of excess and entitlement, and it will no doubt be raided for ammunition to fire at hapless ministers knocking on doors in the next election.
Where it is less successful is precisely as a book. It is hard to make a compelling narrative from what is essentially a circling around the same story, one blood-boiling extravagance after another. And Foxe doesn’t really manage to create an analytic framework in which the actions and attitudes of our leaders can be related to a bigger picture. Snouts in the Troughis probably more a book to be chewed piecemeal than one to be swallowed as a whole. Given the effects of the material on the blood pressure, this may be no bad thing. Foxe has, however, done the State more service than some of those occupying €2,000-a-night hotel rooms on our behalf.
Fintan O’Toole is Assistant Editor of The Irish Times. His book Enough Is Enough: How to Build a New Republicwill be published next month