Review of 2014: The year the citizens broke

From the Rehab controversy to the John McNulty affair and the Irish Water debacle, the people of Ireland finally had enough

For the sake of civility we’ll call them national conversations. Others might dub them soul-searching, or bandwagoning or shouting matches. Anyway, 2014 seemed to trigger a lot more of them than usual, which in itself might be a theme for a national conversation. “There’s a lot of anger out there” became the default position about everything from the rise and rise of Sinn Féin and 57 kinds of Independents to the most moronically abusive of online posters.

Was this the price to be paid for retrieving our frayed national sovereignty without providing therapy sessions for a few million skint and humiliated citizens still reeling from a six-year mugging?

After years of doing a good impression of rabbits caught in headlights, the citizens’ patience had run out. Every member of the Government, of a quango or of an authority of any kind was on notice: they were being watched as never before for the merest hint of cronyism, entitlement or sleveenism by a citizenry weary of being patted on the head and praised for its resilience.

Were we just naive? Should we have been so shocked when it emerged that, right through the crash, some of the lads and lassies had carried on regardless?

The year was barely a pup when it emerged that nearly half the funds raised by volunteers for the Central Remedial Clinic had gone towards a mind-blowing €742,000 severance package for its chief executive; that Angela Kerins, Rehab's chief executive, had been on a salary of €240,000; that Frank Flannery, the veteran Fine Gael handler, had been paid €351,000 over several years by the same charity to lobby the same ministers for whom he had been electorally strategising for decades.

If there was an upside to the scandal it was the consequent national conversation about the transparency of charities’ accounts. But the blow to any residual national innocence was palpable. The evidence was in the collection boxes.

Information – painfully extracted – about the colossal consultancy fees paid by Irish Water were all of a heart-sinking piece with Rehab. A picture emerged of a gold-plated start-up, with added arrogance and bonuses, mass confusion about charges and demands for PPS numbers before “customers” were even fully aware of the kind of entity they were signing up to.

All topped by a minister – Phil Hogan, since departed to his gold-plated Brussels reward as agriculture commissioner – who admitted he had no idea how much was being spent by the new utility for which he was responsible.

The national conversation about that was conducted on the streets of Ireland – in Jobstown, famously, where Tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car for two hours, amid foul misogynistic and homophobic roars – and in the ballot box, ably harnessed by activists waiting in the long grass for the Government to trip up on what the former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who died this year, called "the little things".

It will be one of this Government’s outstanding legacies that a rational, national debate about conservation and affordability descended into a shambolic symbol of all that was wrong with the body politic.

Old-fashioned stroke

The John McNulty affair was shocking for similar reasons. In the kind of old-fashioned Fianna Fáil-style stroke that some people once smiled about (and voted for), McNulty, a Donegal supermarket owner and Fine Gael’s would-be Seanad candidate, was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art to boost his arts credentials only nine days before an election for the Seanad cultural panel – upon election to which he would have had to resign from Imma.

It was a sextuple whammy that demeaned every institution and individual it touched: Imma, the Seanad, the Taoiseach, the candidate (who possibly made electoral history by asking people not to vote for him), the (brand new) Minister for the Arts, some shadowy Fine Gael officials and, above all, the hapless people of Ireland, still scanning the horizon for signs that the six-year mugging had not been in vain, that lessons had been learned. That triggered another national conversation – about accountability, about cronyism, about disrespect for our democratic institutions, about whether we get the politicians we deserve – and another ratcheting-up of disillusion about the people who had swept into government on pledges of political reform.

Further evidence of public institutions swimming contentedly in their own balmy cultural soup emerged as the Garda commissioner Martin Callinan played what he doubtless deemed a stormer before the Committee for Public Accounts.

Eyebrows shot up at his presumptuousness as he talked about “my force”. But what doomed him was the word “disgusting”, used to describe actions by the Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson (and replaced by “distinguished” by the rapidly ascending Leo Varadkar).

The jig was up for the commissioner (who later retired in circumstances still under investigation), for the sacked Garda confidential recipient and for the minister for justice Alan Shatter, who had backed Callinan to the hilt and claimed that he hadn't read the commissioner's offending remarks to the Committee for Public Accounts.

Shatter finally resigned, providing Fine Gael’s head on a plate just before the publication of the highly critical Guerin report. As a bonus he had to listen to an emotional Mick Wallace (whose tendency to well up during speeches raises the question of whether the bear pit might be so indulgent of a weepy woman), accusing him and the Garda of circling the wagons, doing what it takes to “cover up . . . to hide the truth”. “Is there an appetite for doing things any different in this House?” he asked, echoing what many citizens were thinking.

Sturm und Drang

That Wallace attended World Cup matches in Brazil when a high-level conference on policing was taking place at Farmleigh hardly raised the same citizens’ spirits. But there was an upside to the

Sturm und Drang

. On foot of several damning reports on the Department of Justice and the Garda Síochána, radical action was promised by the two able, energetic women – Frances Fitzgerald and Nóirín O’Sullivan – chosen to replace Shatter and Callinan. No one doubts the magnitude of the challenge. The question is whether they will succeed in draining the cultural soup or drown in it. Not long afterwards another woman, Joan Burton, would become leader of the Labour party and Tánaiste, adding superficial lustre to the dearth of female representation in the Oireachtas.

Meanwhile, back among the citizenry, my colleague Kitty Holland reported that 36-year-old Sabrina McMahon and her three young children had been sleeping in a car in Tallaght. A Sinn Féin councillor, Máire Devine, said homelessness and housing were now “the biggest issue” in her clinics. “It’s a tsunami, and no one in Government seems to have any policy on it, any plan, any direction on this disaster that is affecting thousands of ordinary people.” That was in April.

In a year that ended with the death of Jonathan Corrie, sleeping rough on a freezing December night, a few metres from the gates of Leinster House, Devine's words seem prescient now. But did they start a serious national conversation then ?

Mother-and-baby home

Maybe a small one. If they did, it was swiftly displaced by the revelations of

Catherine Corless

, a local historian in Galway, with details so shocking that they scorched a path across decades of concealment and reopened a thousand old wounds. The media was shown at its worst when the tragic heart of the story – that 796 children with no burial records had died in a Tuam mother-and-baby home between 1925 and 1961 – was hijacked by sensational headlines sent flying around the world, suggesting that the infants were all “dumped” in a septic tank. Corless, who had dedicated many years and thousands of euro to her research, told my colleague Rosita Boland that she had never said that. Her truth needed no embellishment. And so, inevitably, another commission of inquiry, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, was announced.

The tragedy of Tuam lies in its intimate entanglement with all the stories of Ireland’s treatment of its women, its mothers and its children. Many of them faded in and out of the news this year: the Magdalene women, the women mutilated by barbaric symphysiotomy, the children growing up in direct provision.

The woman who helped to shift the country’s cultural axis on child abuse, Christine Buckley, died in April; she was an extraordinary human being who, in the words of my colleague Patsy McGarry, “ploughed through denial, denunciation and obfuscation to expose the rotten story of what went on in this State’s residential institutions for children”.

Light relief

If Catherine Corless added another important piece to the jigsaw of our past, continuing a never-ending national conversation, there was light relief in the next one to erupt.

Garth Brooks’s doomed plan to kick off a comeback world tour with a sensational five consecutive, sold-out gigs at Croke Park left bruises on everyone involved: the GAA; Dublin City Council; Aiken Promotions; the Croke Park residents (who may or may not have signed a petition); business owners who saw a €50 million bonanza snatched away; fanatical Brooks fans and their country-music-loathing cultural opposition; plus a slew of politicians and, not least, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Christy Burke, who caused a national cringe when he told Brooks that “the country wants you, the country needs you” – although, in fairness, he also said that the whole thing was a farce and that the media should be attending to more important issues, like homelessness.

Some said our international reputation would never recover from the Brooks debacle. But in August this newspaper reported that Breakfast Roll Man was back “big time” in Co Cavan – and an Ireland rugby team beat the New Zealanders at last, as Philip Doyle’s heroines triumphed under their captain and taliswoman, Fiona Coghlan, with Alison Miller’s decisive try via Selica Winiata and the magnificent Niamh Briggs. The early part of the sporting year had been occupied by Brian O’Driscoll’s farewell to rugby, which seemed to go on for an entire epoch – with, by contrast, no farewell at all for Ronan O’Gara.

The GAA kicked off another anguished national conversation by selling rights to matches to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky – a broadcaster described by my colleague Seán Moran as “the main organ of promotion for English soccer . . . with the breathless style of puffery that has reared generations of children to believe there’s never a bad match played in the Premiership”.

Then again, the Premier League is English, and the Irish and English became best friends forever in April at Windsor Castle, two countries transforming “shadow to shelter” in the words of the President.

Prof Roy Foster opined that relations between Britain and Ireland had become so intimate as to be “nearly as good as sex”, which seems a tad overblown, as we appear to have stumbled at the first intimation of a serious date: the notion of welcoming a member of the British royal family to the 1916 commemorations has kicked off another scratchy national conversation that shows every sign of gathering steam in the new year.

Downfall of the wealthy

Meanwhile, the men who were as good as royal in the boom years suffered contrasting fortunes in 2014. The downfall of wealthy people will never trigger waves of public grief, but the travails of Harry Crosbie – whose vision encompassed the docklands, the Point and the Grand Canal theatre, among others – gave pause to many. Sir Anthony O’Reilly’s enforced departure from Castlemartin, where his parents and grandchildren are buried, was “a life dismantled” in the words of a saddened friend.

But Seán FitzPatrick walked free from the criminal courts, still a bankrupt but acquitted of all charges in relation to lending to the Maple 10 and the Quinn family.

By contrast, Breifne O’Brien got seven years in jail for operating an €8.5 million pyramid scheme – also called stealing from his friends – while Seán Dunne’s headbutting of Nama and the US justice system in his attempts to be declared a bankrupt there was rebounding on him as the year drew to a close.

They were all the subject of some degree of national conversation this year. Whether they learned valuable lessons is unknown. But at a national level it was all too clear who was listening and who had failed to learn. Ireland’s awake.