State of corruption: power and impunity


POLITICS:The political analyst Elaine Byrne has charted Ireland’s financial scandals and, with them, the culture that created a tolerance for unethical behaviour

Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp? By Elaine A Byrne Manchester University Press, 273pp. €20

IRISH POLITICS are not outstandingly corrupt. The former French president Jacques Chirac was found guilty of corruption last year: when he was mayor of Paris he used public funds to pay party cronies for Mafia-style no-show jobs. The former German chancellor Helmut Kohl hid under-the-counter donations from, among others, a dodgy arms dealer. Until recently, Italian politics were dominated by Silvio Berlusconi, who makes Charles Haughey look like Savonarola. British parliamentarians systematically ripped off public money by claiming false expenses. On any given day, the New York Times is more likely than not to have at least one report of a city or state power broker on trial for graft.

By these standards, Ireland is hardly an island of rottenness in a sea of purity. It’s no beacon either, of course. Two prime ministers – Haughey and Bertie Ahern – on the take; the systematic corruption of the planning process over two decades; a capital city whose development was determined by bribes; a hugely lucrative public competition – the awarding of the second mobile-phone licence – notable for financial links between the winner and the responsible minister: all of these make Ireland highly competitive in the shame game. But they’re not, in international terms, wholly egregious.

There are, nonetheless, two extraordinary aspects of political corruption in Ireland. One is impunity. Almost every other democratic country has one unbreakable rule: don’t get caught. Although Chirac and Kohl, for example, were major figures not just in their own countries but on the European stage, this status did not save them from prosecution. (Kohl’s case was dropped in return for his paying a €150,000 fine.) Westminster politicians caught fiddling expenses served significant jail terms. This is not the Irish way. Senior politicians are not prosecuted for corruption. Ray Burke went to jail for tax offences and Liam Lawlor for refusing to answer questions from a tribunal. A senior Irish politician is extremely unlikely to see the inside of a cell on corruption charges. The chances of someone who pays bribes meeting the same fate are even smaller.

The second distinguishing aspect of Irish public culture is related to the first: impunity is not just legal but can also be moral, social and political. Kohl, the man who unified Germany, was destroyed, humiliated and ostracised. Here no great shame is attached to adverse findings from a tribunal. The two central figures in the grim story of the second mobile-phone licence, Denis O’Brien and Michael Lowry, are thriving. Lowry increased his vote in the last election; O’Brien has his photograph taken with the Taoiseach and is becoming the most dominant media owner in the history of the State.

The importance of Elaine Byrne’s excellent history of political corruption since 1922 is that it grapples precisely with these questions. The book functions very well as a work of reference that takes the reader through the complexities of half-forgotten incidents, such as the Wicklow gold inquiry of 1935, the Great Southern Railways tribunal of 1943 and the Con Ward affair of 1946, as well as the more recent era of tribunals that began with the beef inquiry of 1991-94. But Byrne’s ambitions are more substantial. She is concerned not just with individual scandals but with the political culture that has created our extraordinary tolerance for wildly unethical behaviour.

It would have been easy, and perhaps gratifying, for Byrne to set up a simple moral opposition of past to present. There is a pre-existing narrative that fits the biblical tale of the Fall. The early years of the State, dominated by politicians who had risked their lives for their high ideals of independence, were the Eden of purity and integrity. Then came the 1960s, when a postrevolutionary generation, epitomised by Haughey, bit the apple of temptation and the State’s innocence was lost.

This narrative is tempting because it is not entirely untrue. Byrne has dug out from the archives a gorgeous letter from 1924. Written to serving ministers by the finance minister Ernest Blythe, it referred back to the period two years before when the Civil War was breaking out. Ministers had to sleep in Government Buildings for their own safety, “having their meals supplied from a neighbouring restaurant (Messrs Mills on Merrion Row)”. Now Blythe demanded that each minister pay for his share of the food. What Byrne calls this “obsession with probity” was shared by the Civil Service, where, though badly battered in recent decades, it has never been entirely lost.

But this idea of a prelapsarian innocence has to be qualified by two factors. One, as Byrne shows in persuasive detail, is the Irish tendency to regard the family as a separate sphere, placing private business activities off limits to public scrutiny. The idea of conflict of interest had a very tenuous hold. Thus, in 1934, two Fianna Fáil politicians, Robert Briscoe and Michael Comyn, were able to get licences to prospect for gold in Co Wicklow and sell them on at a hefty profit. Thus Seán Lemass, now regarded as an icon of incorruptibility, could defend this transaction on the basis that “members of the Oireachtas should be treated exactly as anyone else” – in other words that conflicts of interest between private and public affairs were of no concern. Thus, in the later Con Ward affair, in which a minister’s business was evading tax, James Dillon of Fine Gael could ask: “What has Dáil Éireann got to do with the private activities of Dr Ward or the management of his business?” Thus Éamon de Valera could use the cover of a family business to get away with his outrageous personal takeover of the Irish Press group.

This distorted notion of the privacy of “family” money extends naturally into a wider “family” of political and personal cronies. And even to one’s religious leaders. One of Byrne’s most delicious revelations is that of classic insider trading involving no less a figure than Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. The prelate held substantial shares in Great Southern Railways and was tipped off that it would be nationalised, allowing him to make bumper profits.

The other factor that has been at work since long before the 1960s is the combination of clientelism at the local level and excessive centralisation of power at the national level. Centralisation made for a lack of engaged democracy and an absence of genuine accountability, both of which are perfectly conducive to corruption. Clientelism is essentially an amoral bargaining system in which everything comes down to an exchange of favours. It is a system of bribery in which the currency is not money but votes.

Elaine Byrne’s powerfully made argument is that, in this world, graft is about much more than individual sin. “Corruption operated within a system rather than a mere aggregation of isolated illegal acts. It had become a market, which, as in the case of every functioning market, has developed internal rules governed by the laws of supply and demand.” The implication, of course, is that the only way to contain corruption is through a radical reinvention of the system.

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