Fianna Fáil may go the way of developers


INSIDE POLITICS:Micheál Martin and others within Fianna Fáil will find it hard to explain their inertia during the Ahern era, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE MAHON report raises huge questions for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil but it also poses an unsettling challenge for Irish society and its institutions that tolerated and indulged corrupt practices for so long.

The crucial point is that the kind of appalling behaviour on the part of political leaders and businessmen exposed by the tribunal was not an aberration: it was a central feature of Irish political life for the past half a century.

Back in the early 1960s the extent of the links between Fianna Fáil leaders and businessmen first became public through a fundraising organisation called Taca. Businessmen attended dinners in the Gresham Hotel and were given special access to ministers in return for donations to the party. Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Donogh O’Malley and Kevin Boland were prominent attenders at the Taca dinners.

Fine Gael leader James Dillon attacked the practice, lamenting: “Our people will get the government they voted for . . . I think the acceptance of corruption as the norm in public life is shocking.”

One leading Fianna Fáil minister, George Colley, also voiced concerns in 1967 that “some people in high places seem to have low standards”.

In the 1969 general election leading Fine Gael TD Gerald Sweetman and Labour Party candidate Conor Cruise O’Brien raised questions about Haughey’s wealth and how he had managed to avoid tax on the sale of land for development purposes through a provision of the Finance Act he himself had introduced.

Haughey announced that he would refer the matter to the Revenue Commissioners who duly reported that “no liability to income tax or surtax would have arisen” under the 1965 Act, even if it had not been amended by the minister.

The serious questions about the links between leading Fianna Fáil ministers and big business did not gain any great traction with the public. They were widely dismissed in the media as normal party political point scoring or internal wrangling over the leadership of Fianna Fáil.

When Haughey defeated Colley to succeed to the leadership of Fianna Fáil in December 1979 the same process happened again. Serious questions raised about the new taoiseach’s fitness for office by Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald were dismissed, even though a significant number of Haughey’s colleagues shared those concerns.

There was an influx of new Fianna Fáil TDs such as Pádraig Flynn, Seán Doherty, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern in the 1977 general election. And they mostly backed Haughey and his style of leadership. The convulsions within Fianna Fáil in the early 1980s, the expulsion of Des O’Malley and the foundation of the Progressive Democrats were largely prompted by the kind of standards that had become the norm under Haughey.

As had happened in the 1960s outrage at low standards in high places was widely dismissed as political manoeuvring on the part of O’Malley.

What was striking about the Haughey era was not the controversy it engendered but the fact that there was such tolerance for his behaviour in his own party, the institutions of State and sections of the media.

It is hardly a surprise that the coterie of politicians who protected and defended Haughey in the internal battles within Fianna Fáil did not have a problem with the kind of ethical standards he epitomised.

What is surprising is that a large section of the public didn’t seem to have a problem with them either.

While Haughey was a divisive figure his political record was remarkable. He fought five elections between 1981 and 1989 and his party’s vote was consistent, ranging from 44 per cent to 47 per cent. By contrast, the party’s vote slipped to 39 per cent under Albert Reynolds in 1992, although he managed to retain office.

Bertie Ahern’s electoral record was even more remarkable than Haughey’s. His personal popularity was far higher and he managed to win three general elections in a row between 1997 and 2007 despite the fact that he was Haughey’s protege and the sordid detail of his former leader’s finances had already become public knowledge.

When Ahern delivered the graveside oration at Haughey’s funeral in 2006 he made no secret of his admiration for the deceased former leader, whom he mourned as “Charlie, Boss”.

Yet for all the knowledge that was in the public domain through the tribunals about the low standards that had been rife at the top level of Fianna Fáil over decades, and despite the annual spectacle of the “Galway tent”, Ahern comfortably won his third election in a row and was swept back to office in the summer of 2007.

The collapse in Fianna Fáil support that happened in the years since then has had nothing do with standards in political life but everything to do with the collapse of the economy. It seems that a substantial section of the electorate was willing to close its eyes to unethical behaviour by politicians for as long as the boom continued.

Now that the Mahon tribunal has exposed the truth, Fianna Fáil faces an obvious and immediate problem but the rest of society needs to look at itself as well. The institutions of that State that should have been independent, such as the Revenue Commissioners and the Garda, have to examine their consciences about how and why they averted their eyes.

The media which was often indulgent of politicians it knew to be seriously unethical, while getting up on its high horse only when the nature of their behaviour was exposed for all to see, needs to examine its conscience also.

One obvious course of action is that, where appropriate, the recommendations of the planning tribunal should be implemented in law as quickly as possible. The political system needs to do everything in its power to restore public faith and that should be a first step. Given the scale of the economic challenges facing the country, the restoration of trust in politics is vital to ensure that society doesn’t fracture in the face of adversity.

Despite all the shocking revelations in the report it should be remembered, as the tribunal itself acknowledged, that the vast majority of politicians are honest, decent people trying to do the best they can in a very difficult job.

As for Fianna Fáil, the party is now facing a huge challenge that will test its ability to survive as a viable political entity. After its drubbing in last year’s general election the tribunal report could prove the last straw.

The electoral disaster resulted from the economic crash rather than questions about political standards but the two issues were interlinked. The fact that the speculators and builders who frequented the Galway tent were at the core of the speculative bubble that led to the crash is something the party will find it very hard to live down.

Even harder to cope with may be the fact that Micheál Martin and other leading members of the parliamentary party were key figures right through the Ahern era. Even if they did not engage in wrongdoing they will have a difficult time explaining why they turned a blind eye for so long.

Expelling Bertie Ahern and Pádraig Flynn is the easy part. Finding reasons to justify the existence of Fianna Fáil into the future will be much more difficult.

The party’s once massive support base dropped by 60 per cent in the election and, following the tribunal report, the danger is that it will continue to melt away.