The real test of the Flood findings on corruption is whether the politicalculture in which Ray Burke thrived for so long really changes - and nothingthe Taoiseach says suggests it will change from the top, writes Fintan O'Toole
For all the welcome forthrightness and clarity of Mr Justice Flood's interim report, it is easy to get the wrong impression. The scandal it reveals is not that one of the most senior figures in Irish politics over the last 30 years prostituted his local and national offices to greedy businessmen. Most societies throw up venal politicians from time to time and Ray Burke would be a recognisable figure in the US, France, the UK or Italy.
The real scandal is that Ray Burke was found out a long time before Mr Justice Flood's inquiry was ever established. Yet he was promoted, protected and defended by his party. The full detail of his financial relationships with wealthy business people was not known, but the smell of something fishy was overpowering. For a quarter of a century, his colleagues and superiors chose to hold their noses and look the other way.
The claim yesterday by the Taoiseach that Ray Burke looks corrupt only in hindsight is nonsense.
On at least three occasions over three decades, journalists tried to set the alarm bells ringing.
As long ago as 1974, when Ray Burke was a fledgling backbench TD, investigative reporter Joe McAnthony discovered a set of accounts for the builders Brennan and McGowan, who feature heavily in the Flood report as the largest contributors of corrupt payments. Listed as expenditure under the heading "Planning" was a payment to Ray Burke of £15,000 - then a very substantial sum.
The Sunday Independent splashed McAnthony's story all over its front page, pointing out that Burke had sponsored motions on Dublin County Council, rezoning lands owned by the builders. Burke subsequently acted as auctioneer for some of the houses built on these lands.
In 1981, Vincent Browne again drew attention to this entanglement in The Magill Book of Irish Politics, reminding readers that Burke had been interviewed extensively by the Fraud Squad and, in an exquisitely fashioned homage to the libel laws, suggesting that "the ethical aspects of the case were never explored." Then, in 1993, The Irish Times ran a series of articles by Mark Brennock and Frank McDonald, investigating the flagrant abuse of the planning process in Dublin. One front page headline read "Cash in brown paper bags for councillors".
The libel laws prevented Burke from being named, but the detail was more than enough to make it clear that the scandal was still unfolding.
The leadership of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael knew damn well that these allegations were true. Michael Smith, the Fianna Fail minister for the environment in 1993, openly stated that zoning in the Dublin County Council area was a "debased currency". In the same year, the Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, told his Dublin county councillors that they had become "a laughing stock" because of rezoning, and that it must stop.
Yet both parties allowed their councillors to silence anyone who said these things in public.
When the Labour TD Joan Burton raised the issue in a forceful speech, she immediately received two sets of libel threats - one from a legal firm acting for all the Fine Gael councillors, the other from a firm acting for all the Fianna Fáil councillors.
The letters demanded that Burton, and the Irish Independent, which had reported her speech, state publicly that there were "absolutely no grounds to suggest bribery or corruption in Dublin County Council". Both parties thus allowed their councillors, acting in concert, to demand the publication of a statement they knew to be wildly inaccurate.
This is collusion of the highest order. It was massively reinforced, moreover, by Bertie Ahern's decision to resurrect Ray Burke's moribund political career in 1997, when he gave him one of the most prestigious offices of State, Minister for Foreign Affairs.
It was a completely unnecessary appointment, made in the teeth of renewed allegations about Burke's receipt of a huge donation from JMSE. It is difficult, even without the element of hindsight provided by Mr Justice Flood's report, to see it as anything other than an explicit endorsement of the political culture which Burke had come to represent.
The Taoiseach's determination to protect Ray Burke extended all the way to the bitter end.
When Bertie Ahern finally brought himself to use the word "sinister" it was not about Burke's activities but about the journalists and politicians whose attempts to expose him he described as "the persistent hounding of an honourable man."
With this kind of message coming from the top, is it any wonder that so many of those called to give evidence by Mr Justice Flood behaved with such brazen contempt for the inquiry, the law and the public? The interim report highlights the willingness of some witnesses to spin elaborate fabrications under oath.
Ray Burke invented cover stories. Tom Brennan and Joseph McGowan "colluded in their evidence" in concocting the claim that payments to Ray Burke were the proceeds of fund-raising events. It is hard to believe that they would have taken this risk unless they felt themselves immune from the consequences.
That arrogance stems from long immersion in a culture of impunity. And we have to remember that it has been vindicated time and again. No senior figure was prosecuted as a result of the fraud and tax evasion disclosed by the beef tribunal. No one has suffered as a result of the McCracken tribunal. The massive Ansbacher and DIRT scandals have been revealed, but without any obvious attempt to bring those responsible to justice.
In spite of the forceful language employed by Mr Justice Flood, there is no compelling reason to believe that the political culture he is exposing is on its last legs.
The most serious finding in yesterday's report, for instance, is that the broadcasting legislation which Ray Burke introduced to limit RTÉ's advertising revenue to the benefit of Century Radio was "in response to demands made of him by the promoters of Century and was not serving the public interest". This is the strongest political finding that any tribunal has made, proof in effect that the Government itself was acting not for the people as a whole but on behalf of a group of businessmen.
One member of that Cabinet remains in active politics: the Taoiseach. Is anyone holding their breath waiting for Mr Ahern to accept collective Cabinet responsibility for this corrupt legislation? The very idea is still laughable.
The report also makes interesting reading in relation to the former Government Press Secretary, P.J. Mara. He was receiving substantial interest-free loans from Oliver Barry and Dermot Desmond while he held this sensitive public office. He failed to disclose to the tribunal the fact that he was the beneficial owner of a secret offshore account in the Isle of Man. Yet he remains a very influential figure in Fianna Fáil, as the director of elections who has overseen two successive triumphs.
And is there any real reason to believe that even after the revelation of his long career in corruption, Ray Burke, were he brazen enough to stand, would not still be re-elected in North Dublin? Before dismissing the suggestion that he would still romp home near the head of the poll, sceptics should look at the recent results in Tipperary and Mayo and explain how neither Michael Lowry nor Beverly Cooper-Flynn has fallen from grace with the electorate.
This is not the fault of Mr Justice Flood, and his report shows an admirable willingness to name corruption and lies for what they are.
He has made a crucial advance in clearing away once and for all the notion that bribes are corrupt only if it can be shown exactly what favours were rendered in return. His working definition of political corruption - that an office holder becomes "available to serve the interests" of his paymasters - nails down with great precision the nature of the process.
This clarity augurs well for the rest of the Flood tribunal, and its investigations into the hydra-headed monster of graft.
A great boost has been given to those who care about the public interest by the judge's common sense in deciding that if the fish stinks to high heaven, it's probably rotten. His willingness to expose those who treat public inquiries with contempt may well mean that the next phase of his tribunal will encounter less evasion.
The real test, though, is whether the political culture in which Ray Burke thrived for so long really changes. Everything the Taoiseach has said and done in relation to these issues - including his staggeringly smug response yesterday in which his sole concern was to pat himself on the back - suggests that it will not change from the top. And unless there are tangible consequences, public weariness and cynicism will ensure that there is no change at the bottom either.