Fintan O'Toole: Why the Irish vote for corruption

Councillors filmed by RTÉ seeking financial rewards for help with planning have been confident and combative since the broadcast. Why not? It could be an electoral asset

In the local elections last year in Sligo the biggest vote for a single candidate in any one box was that for Michael Clarke in the McGee Memorial Hall booth, in Dromore.

It was a repeat performance. Clarke, standing as an Independent, easily topped the poll in the 2009 local elections, comfortably ahead of his fellow Sligo councillor Joe Queenan, who had a starring role in this week's RTÉ investigation into standards in public office.

Clarke, a publican and auctioneer, is obviously something of a local hero. He is also a convicted fraudster. In 2002 he was sent to jail for two years for his part in a conspiracy to defraud the State of more than €100,000. A corrupt Department of Agriculture official was making out cheques to nonexistent farmers under a dairy-hygiene scheme. Clarke was collecting and cashing them. The scam was quite complex, with money orders being sent to fictitious payees at a number of guest houses in Co Sligo.

Sentencing Clarke to jail, Judge Anthony Kennedy described the case as one of a well-to-do person driven by greed for ever more money. The guilty verdict, he said, implied that Clarke “was up to his neck in dishonesty”.


The funny thing is that, before he was convicted of stealing public money, Clarke’s political career was going nowhere. In the 1999 local elections, even though he was an official Fianna Fáil candidate, he was bottom of the poll, with 596 votes.

In 2009, after he had done his time, he more than doubled his tally, to 1,408. Being a “felon” is a long-established vote-getter.

In other democracies politicians caught on camera seeking financial rewards for help with planning decisions would resign. The response of the three councillors caught by RTÉ Investigates, on the other hand, has been combative and self-confident, with Hugh McElvaney going so far as to claim that it was he who lured RTÉ into his trap.

Their demeanour suggests that they expect to be re-elected in the next local elections, in 2019. And why wouldn’t they? They have not been charged with, let alone found guilty of, any offence. But, even if they were, history suggests that it might be an electoral asset.

Where does this toleration come from? If local councillors are dishonest or corrupt, after all, the primary victims are likely to be local communities who have to live with decisions that are not made in their best interests. It is not “them up in Dublin” who have to live in the houses built on flood plains or surrounded by towering wind farms.

Sticking two fingers up

The understandable instinct to stick two fingers up to self-righteous outsiders should, one might imagine, diminish sharply when the same fingers end up being stuck in your own eye.

Yet it is too easy to simply blame rural voters alone for the low standards of ethics in Irish politics. Charles Haughey, Liam Lawlor, Bertie Ahern and Ray Burke were all elected repeatedly by Dublin voters.

No part of Ireland has a monopoly on blind local loyalty to effective clientelist politicians whose status as “one of us” shields them from moral scrutiny. The sneaking regard for the rogue, the urge to wink back when you’re winked at, doesn’t disappear when you reach the M50.

The real problem is the vicious circle of impunity. Ireland is not spectacularly corrupt by international standards. What marks it out is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

The simple question is this: if the great and the good don’t take corruption and fraud seriously, if the system conspires to treat these crimes as minor matters, why should local voters think otherwise?

One of the things we know about Irish culture is that Irish people change their behaviour only when they know there will be bad consequences if they don’t. Drink-driving, for example, was completely normal behaviour in Ireland for decades. This was not because people were stupid and didn’t know that drink-driving killed. It was because you could get away with it. It became socially unacceptable only when the laws became tough and, more importantly, when those laws were enforced.

And corruption will become socially unacceptable only when the laws are tough and when they are enforced. This is just the way we are: other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalised. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.

And you can get away with it. As governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Patrick Honohan summed up the prosecution of white-collar crime in Ireland when he told the Oireachtas Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis: “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.”

“Perfect time to commit offences”

Remarkable indeed. The senior counsel with most experience of prosecuting fraud cases, Remy Farrell, revealed last year that many files sent to the Garda bureau of fraud investigation are not even read and that, of those considered, just one in 10 results in a prosecution. “Now,” he said, “is the perfect time to commit regulatory white-collar offences.”

The bureau, which is responsible for investigating all white-collar crime, has just 70 staff. No wonder this week’s report by the Garda Inspectorate found that the bureau is “struggling to manage the volume of suspicious financial transaction reports forwarded to them as part of the money laundering and terrorist financing legislation”.

The bureau lacks dedicated financial analysts, it said, and has to ask for assistance from other departments. The bureau’s financial investigation unit likewise “does not have a dedicated financial analyst, and the IT system in use is not fit for purpose”.

Things are so bad that the inspectorate recommends removing serious fraud investigations from the bureau altogether and giving them to a new serious and organised crime unit and the criminal-assets bureau. As a vote of no confidence this could hardly be more emphatic.

If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities. There have been some welcome developments, such as good legislation to protect whistleblowers and to register lobbyists, but no progress has been made on real policing of the political system.

The Standards in Public Office Commission, to its credit, has been trumpeting its own inadequacy for years, not least its effective inability to initiate its own investigations. Proposals to strengthen it seem highly unlikely to be passed before the general election.

The Government has watered down proposals for an independent planning regulator to the point of insipidness and even so has failed to bring the legislation to the Dáil.

A promised anti-corruption bill to consolidate the disjointed mess of legislation may or may not make it on to the statute books before the election. St Augustine’s prayer that God would make him virtuous but not yet comes to mind.

Even RTÉ, which did such a superb job in its investigation, is not without its ambiguities. The only person actually found guilty of the criminal offence of abusing public office is Patrick O’Donoghue, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to using his position on Killarney Town Council to try to rezone lands in which he himself had a beneficial interest.

He was given a very light sentence on the basis that he would suffer public opprobrium. He didn’t: RTÉ broadcast a six-part series this summer puffing O’Donoghue and the hotel whose lands he tried to rezone, the Gleneagle.

What happens when this culture of impunity is allowed to fester can be summed up in two words: “singled out”.

When everybody seems to getting away with everything, the reaction when one person is prosecuted is not “at last!” but “why him?” and, indeed, “why me?” Why am I being punished for my little misdemeanours when we all know there are bigger crooks out there getting away scot free?

As an argument it is utterly self-serving. But it is just true enough to work. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy.