Anne Harris: Shadow of Siteserv and Moriarty tribunal hung over Fine Gael

Coalition completely ignored fact people need to talk about Denis O’Brien

Denis O’Brien arriving to give evidence in the Moriarty Tribunal in 2001. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Denis O’Brien arriving to give evidence in the Moriarty Tribunal in 2001. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

A politician calls to a door. “You shouldn’t have allowed Denis O’Brien to bid for Siteserv! ” declares the man of the house. “That would be illegal,” responds the politician. “Ah, but you could have done something,” persists the man, unmoved by the politician’s talk of recovery. Another disgruntled Fianna Fáil voter “using it as an excuse not to vote for us,” concludes the politician.

That is a précis of one vignette from Kathy Sheridan’s interview with Ruairí Quinn last week. It is also a parable which addresses the existential cry of last weekend: what went wrong?

A parable is a story told in simple words, whose meaning is hidden from those who reject the object lesson, but which gives fuller understanding to those who are open to it.

On RTÉ’s election special on Sunday morning, Catherine Murphy demonstrated that fuller understanding when she said that the big issue, along with health and housing, was Siteserv. Why was the meaning of Siteserv hidden from the Labour Party and Fine Gael?

Apart from the fact that in our Republic, you don’t need an excuse not to vote for a party, the vignette shows something else. The Greeks knew it as the pride that comes before a fall; the psychologist knows it as a syndrome that afflicts many who achieve power. Hubris. In a politician, hubris manifests itself as being out of touch caused by not listening. Like to the fact that the people need to talk about Denis, as Quinn discovered.

Unspoken factors

Siteserv, the Moriarty tribunal and Denis O’Brien are more than an issue. They are emblematic of the unspoken factors in the collapse of the Government vote. O’Brien was not mentioned in leaders’ debates, but he lingers in the stagnant air of Irish public discourse.

Last June, Michael Noonan brought in the commission of inquiry into IBRC, hoping it would quiet the turbulent voices of Catherine Murphy, Lucinda Creighton and Micheál Martin. It didn’t. And Catherine Murphy and Micheál Martin reaped an electoral reward.

The punishment of Lucinda Creighton is a different story, one which exposes conflicts at the heart of Fine Gael.

On February 25th, 2011, Fine Gael swept into Government on a reform platform of cleaning up the mess left by Fianna Fáil. Less than one month later they had their own mess. The Moriarty tribunal report was published.

Enda Kenny did nothing for 16 months and then told the Magill Summer School that he accepted “the findings of the Moriarty tribunal in its entirety”. This meant that he accepted that Michael Lowry had “secured the winning” of the second mobile phone licence – the most lucrative licence in the history of the state – for Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone consortium, on which O’Brien built a fortune. It meant he accepted that O’Brien made payments to Mr Lowry, and that the transactions were “demonstrably referable to the conduct and acts of Mr Lowry”.

Some shame

All of which surely meant that the Taoiseach felt some shame at how public life was reduced and intended to do something about it. But nothing happened. In a breathtaking double standard Enda Kenny continued to lacerate Fianna Fáil while refusing to deal in a clear and unambiguous way with the Moriarty tribunal’s findings .

This matters. Denis O’Brien has had proximity to power; he is the subject of adverse findings by the Moriarty tribunal; he has a concentration of ownership in media and above all is the biggest shareholder in the biggest print media organisation in the country.

Because Fine Gael has refused to deal with this confluence, they have undermined public trust. In this climate, the INM treatment of Creighton looks suspiciously like dirty tricks for the benefit of Fine Gael. At the very least it was very convenient for Fine Gael that over 12 days before the election, INM ran at least eight stories about an anonymous complaint about Creighton to the Standards in Public Office (Sipo), about which Sipo said there was no evidence and which had previously been dismissed. Five appeared in election week, including election day, several on the front page, accompanied by pictures of her Fine Gael constituency rival Kate O’Connell, demanding to see Creighton’s “legal bills”. INM commissioned a constituency poll and in stunning self-fulfilling prophecy, pronounced Creighton “transfer toxic”.

You have to wonder who exactly that putative INM charter, vetoing “repeated, sustained, adversarial comment about an individual” was designed to protect?

Something has swallowed up Fine Gael’s honesty, compassion and justice. We must name the shadow, as the Jungians say.

Anne Harris is former editor of the Sunday Independent

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