To have one taoiseach on the take is unfortunate, to have two seems careless
COMMENT:WHAT HURTS, in the end, is not the spectacle of a sitting taoiseach concocting a series of elaborate lies to explain the wads of cash in his safe.
It is not the collusion of around a dozen others in those lies, their willingness to back them up under oath in evidence rejected wholesale by the Mahon tribunal.
It is not the fraudulent charade of the then taoiseach writing personal letters in 2006 to each of the so-called providers of the non-existent dig-out, enclosing cheques for the “outstanding loan you so kindly extended me all those years ago”.
It’s not even the grubbiness of the way Bertie Ahern used the sadness of his broken marriage to distract from his greed and cynicism. All of these things are already factored in to the public contempt for the fallen idol.
They are just more fuel for a satisfying rage that has burned since the economic bubble burst in 2008.
No, what really hurts is not the exposure of a great deceiver’s fictions.
It is the reminder that so many of us seized on those fictions and decided that, however incredible they might be, they were good enough. Good enough, that is, to let us off the hook, to let us evade the obvious but rather awkward truth that the taoiseach, like his mentor before him, was raking in cash while holding high public office. And to decide that he was a fit person to go on being taoiseach.
The tribunal report carefully and forensically dismantles the whole edifice of lies constructed by Ahern and his accomplices. And in response many, many people will claim that they were betrayed and fooled by the most devious and cunning politician of his time. But in order to be fooled, you have to believe. The really tough thing about the Mahon report is that it strongly implies that few of us were really that naïve. It suggests that the issue with corruption in Ireland is not innocence but wilful ignorance, not just wrongdoing but passive collusion. What happened was not belief in Bertie Ahern’s lies but something more subtle and more characteristic of Irish culture: a suspension of disbelief.
One of the core realities that emerges from the tribunal report is that Bertie Ahern and his friends conspired to spin an incredible tale. It is, when you consider it in the light of Mahon’s relentless and dispassionate logic, a transparent farrago. The best bit of unwitting comedy in the report is the recollection of the evidence of David McKenna, one of the contributors to the supposed “dig-out”. Asked why he thought the money had to be paid in cash, he replied “One can only assume that Bertie is an extremely proud individual and that if you give him cheques, he’s only going to tear them up”. Say that in a sarcastic voice and it is worthy of Oscar Wilde.
But this fairy tale was enough for the 900,000 people who voted for Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats in the 2007 general election. Each one of them knew, because The Irish Times had published the story, that Ahern was on the take. And each decided to suspend disbelief in the yarns he was spinning to explain it away. Corruption mattered so little to them that so long as Bertie came up with a story – any story – it could be pushed to the back of the mind. It is for these 900,000 people that the Mahon report matters. For it is ultimately less an examination of individual wrongdoing than a vivisection of the broad and deep culture of collusion and enabling. That culture was rampant in Fianna Fáil but it went far beyond the party.
Many of those who voted for Ahern are now those who hate him most.
It is comforting for them to convince themselves that they were seduced by a heartless charmer who took advantage of their innocence. But Mahon punctures that self-protective illusion. It goes further than all previous tribunal reports because it does for Irish politics what the Murphy report did for Irish institutional Catholicism – it lays bare the truth that for gross abusers of power to thrive over decades, there has to be a whole structure of collusion and evasion.
The first reason Mahon matters is that the report destroys once and for all the idea that corruption was marginal to the Irish political system. On the contrary, it was the Irish political system. That’s what “endemic and systemic” means. The acknowledgment that “corruption affected every level of Irish political life” is the ultimate answer to the rotten apple theory. Mahon’s point is not that everyone within the system was corrupt but that malpractice was so pervasive that it infected all public activities. When so many decisions are made for the wrong reasons, it eventually becomes impossible to tell the good from the bad. It may only be a minority who pee in the water, but everyone has to swim in it.
THE SECOND CRUCIAL aspect of the report is that it defines corruption as much more than nasty individuals taking cash for favours. To have one taoiseach on the take may be unfortunate but to have two smacks of carelessness – in the simple sense of not caring. Corruption is enabled by those who don’t care enough about it to raise their heads – from the Fianna Fáil ministers who went out to bat for Bertie to the voters who reward strokes and boast of “pull”.
It is as much about what is not done as what is – specifically about the deliberate, consistent and organised refusal to ask questions, to investigate criminality and to apply basic moral standards to those in power.
Mahon is important because it states, baldly and from the beginning, not just that those who engaged in corruption had a “sense of impunity and invincibility” but that this sense was “justified”. They really were invincible. The crooks were right to think they would get away with it because there was “little appetite on the part of the State’s political or investigative authorities to combat it effectively or to sanction those involved.” Let’s tease out the implications of this finding. The State’s political authorities are the government, the Oireachtas and local authorities. Its investigative authorities are, primarily, the Garda and the Revenue. What we’re looking at, therefore, is something that goes well beyond scandal and sensation. It is systemic enabling of corruption by acts of omission on the part of government, parliament, local authorities, the police and the revenue.
THE THIRD REALLY important aspect of the report is that it acknowledges that corruption in the planning process in Dublin was “an open secret”.
This is where corruption ceases to be about Them and starts to be about Us.
The report would make for much more comfortable reading if it were only an indictment of the made men, of those who lived inside the golden circle.
Running through it, however, is the great silence. The report calls it “general apathy on the part of the public towards . . . corruption”. It rather charitably attributes this apathy to ignorance, not of corruption itself, but of its “corrosive and destructive” consequences. It might have gone further and pointed out that much of the public not only did not regard corruption as destructive but hoped that it might be personally beneficial.
The thrill of believing that a politician has bent the rules in your favour is a very effective nosegay against the stench of corruption.
These three factors make the report much bigger than Bertie Ahern or Pee Flynn or Liam Lawlor, bigger even than Fianna Fáil’s almost complete tolerance for their activities. It forces us to recognise three further things: that corruption has operated on a vast scale in Irish public life; that it has undermined the rule of law; and that a very substantial proportion of the public has been at the very least willing to put up with it.
IT IS FAIR to say that the scale of what was going on has never been fully revealed, and it is extremely unlikely that it ever will be. What tribunals have dealt with is just what has floated to the surface – often accidentally. (If Ben Dunne hadn’t taken cocaine in Florida and Pádraig Flynn hadn’t gratuitously insulted Tom Gilmartin on The Late Late Show, how much would we know now?) But some indication of what may lie in the murky depths comes from a story that the Mahon report finds to be true.
Tom Gilmartin claimed that, in February 1989, Liam Lawlor took him to a meeting on the first floor of Leinster House. He was introduced to a phalanx of Fianna Fáil’s grand nobility: the sitting taoiseach Charles Haughey, his two successors, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, Brian Lenihan, Pádraig Flynn, Ray Burke, Séamus Brennan, Gerard Collins and Mary O’Rourke. (It is striking that of these nine politicians, four – Haughey, Ahern, Burke and Flynn – have since been shown to have been on the take.) Gilmartin claimed that, after this brief meeting, he was approached in the lobby outside the room by an unknown man who had been standing next to Liam Lawlor. The man asked him to put £5 million into a numbered Bank of Ireland offshore account in the Isle of Man. Gilmartin’s understanding was that this was the price he had to pay for planning permission for his shopping centre at Quarryvale.
Gilmartin’s story sounded far-fetched. It was too much like a scene from a gangster film – Gilmartin famously claimed that it “made the Mafia look like monks”. And £5 million seemed too much for 1989. How much was it? How about the entire budget for a major movie, Jim Sheridan’s The Field, which was shot in that year? But the report finds that Gilmartin was telling the truth. And the implications of this are surely startling. If the going rate for permission for a shopping centre was the budget for an Oscar-nominated movie, the scale of corruption was pretty impressive. Even assuming the unknown man was chancing his arm and asking for twice what he might reasonably expect to get, the amount of money sloshing around the system was enough to keep a lot of people very happy.
Given this reality, the failure of the Garda and the Revenue to get to grips with this Mafia-like activity is more than just inadequacy or incompetence. Mahon finds it puzzling that Tom Gilmartin’s complaints to the Garda about George Redmond, Liam Lawlor and Finbar Hanrahan were “not thoroughly investigated” and that the Garda “went to such lengths” to exonerate Lawlor and Redmond. This is a reasonable statement from a tribunal that must stick to documented facts. But the truth is that few observers of Irish public life over the last 30 years will find it at all puzzling.
The stark fact is that never once in all those years have the Garda or the Revenue initiated an investigation into corruption by a senior political figure except in response to previous media or tribunal investigations. And even then, those investigations have been remarkably ineffective at putting those responsible behind bars.
Nor is there currently any reason for wild optimism that this situation has actually changed. The fallout from the more recent banking scandals does not justify any confidence that the “sense of impunity and invincibility” is no longer justified.
And what, finally, of the other big part of the story: public tolerance for toxic political behaviour? It seems obvious now to point to the rage and contempt hurled in Ahern’s direction as evidence of a great sea change in attitudes.
A sceptic might point to Michael Lowry’s 14,104 votes in North Tipperary last year. And a cynic might ask the most uncomfortable question of all: would Bertie still be elected taoiseach today if the Celtic Tiger were still roaring along? Given the choice between easy money and hard morality, it is not at all obvious that the Irish people would not, yet again, suspend its disbelief in Bertie’s laughable lies.