Failures of beef tribunal haunt us yet


In his Irish Press column Brendan Behan once wrote of passing a large hole in the ground around which a gang of workmen were singing Happy Birthday. "Is it the foreman's birthday?" he asked. "No, it's the first anniversary of the hole." I understood the feeling last week when someone mentioned it was the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the beef tribunal. Tribunal Ireland is now a decade old, and as we keep digging the hole just gets bigger.

If the beef tribunal seems much more than 10 years ago, that is not merely because the experience put years on those of us doomed to cover it. From this distance it has an almost nostalgic sense of innocence. Shocking and appalling as many of its central revelations were, what strikes you now is the sheer naivety of the exercise.

Three implicit assumptions underlay the way the tribunal went about its work. The first was that political parties could not possibly be influenced in their conduct of public affairs by large corporate contributions.

The tribunal discovered that Fianna Fail got what were at that time very large corporate donations from the beef companies that benefited most from the extraordinary decisions it made. In one fortnight in 1987 alone, the party got £105,000 from three companies: Goodman International, Master Meats and Hibernia. Donations of £25,000 or £30,000 sometimes coincided with key moments in the process of conferring large public benefits on these companies.

However, it literally did not occur to the chairman and sole member of the tribunal, Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, that it might be worth asking whether there was any connection between the payments made and the benefits received. The entire issue is dismissed in a sentence in his report's introduction. "The tribunal does not intend to refer further to this matter or report thereon as the tribunal is satisfied that such contributions were normal contributions made to political parties and did not in any way affect or relate to the matters being inquired into by the tribunal." Whatever is normal, in other words, cannot be wrong.

The second, even more naive, underlying assumption was that the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was an upright and honest statesman. Everyone at the tribunal - the lawyers, the civil servants, the beef barons - must have suspected that Haughey was as straight as a maze. But no one could find a way of saying so. While it would be unthinkable now that the matters in question could be investigated without at least raising the possibility that the then Taoiseach was on the take, even 10 years ago this was unutterable.

Any trail of evidence that might lead to such a place had to be dropped. So the entire tortuous process was conducted within the bounds of the then official political normality.

The third hopelessly innocent assumption was that the revelation of facts was itself a mighty moral force. This is not the kind of thing lawyers say, and weeks of tedious discussion about the difference between the hot weight and the cold weight of a carcass might not seem an ideal arena for moral discourse. But the underlying point of all the tedium was that some kind of truth would out. Once it appeared in print with all the authority of a High Court judge behind it, this recitation of ugly facts would surely have consequences.

For all its self-imposed limits, the tribunal did uncover a shocking set of overlapping scandals. A huge tax scam was revealed. A staggering fraud on the public was exposed. Large-scale bare-faced theft was made known.

Names, places, dates, and sums of money were documented in exhaustive and undeniable detail. And, of course, virtually nothing happened. The tax amnesty of 1993 prevented the prosecution of those behind the tax scam. Larry Goodman regained control of his companies and is in the driving seat to this day.

The politicians who had bravely risked their necks to bring the scandals to light - Pat O'Malley, Des O'Malley, Pat Rabbitte, Tomas Mac Giolla, Barry Desmond, Dick Spring and John Bruton - got a lot more abuse than thanks and if they persisted with the issues were largely dismissed as cranks.

That sense of revelation without consequence continues to this day, and is one of the reasons why public trust in the ability of the system to reform itself is so terribly low. But some things have changed, and the anniversary of the beef tribunal's failures does allow us to reflect on what subsequent tribunals have achieved. Because of their work, the wilful naivety that undermined the beef tribunal has been replaced with a hard but necessary scepticism. Whatever else, we're not innocent anymore.

The bad news is that the failures of the beef tribunal still haunt the public realm, turning a healthy scepticism into a bitter cynicism. So much unfinished business remains that no one will quite believe the system is putting itself to rights until it is properly concluded.

We still have to ask what the facts revealed in Mr Justice Hamilton's report would look like if you took away the naive assumptions that corporate donations are fine and that Charles Haughey is an upstanding statesman. With the methods and attitudes that have been so effective in its recent investigations, the Moriarty tribunal could answer that question once and for all.