Fintan O’Toole responds to Pat Rabbitte and Jan O’Sullivan’s criticism

‘What does create negativity and cynicism is promising change and then shoring up the status quo’

Whose fault is it that Irish people are becoming cynical? Mine apparently. According to Jan O’Sullivan last week, I preach “that all Irish people are venal and corrupt” and imply “that no aspect of Irish society can ever escape the supposed grasping, self-serving motives of our people”. According to Pat Rabbitte yesterday, “Fintan O’Toole’s line is that nothing has improved, nothing can improve, nothing will improve.” I am the nabob of negativity, the sultan of cynicism.

Of course, I’ve never suggested all Irish people are corrupt and venal. I’ve argued, rather, that what is distinctive about Ireland among developed democracies is not the level of corruption but the level of impunity. Ireland is the best little country in the developed world in which to be a shyster. Tribunals, inquiries, scandals come and go and nothing much happens. If you’re not cynical, you haven’t been paying attention to the public record.

During the boom years – which were also the tribunal years – the number of prosecutions for white-collar crime virtually collapsed, from 579 in 2003 to 178 in 2010, even though reported offences rose substantially. Even in the area of banking and finance, where such devastating harm has been done to society, the prosecution rate is pathetic.

According to the Central Bank, its staff reported 689 potential financial crimes to the Garda between 2009 and 2013. How many led to prosecutions? Two. Are we supposed to be happy that 0.3 per cent of apparent financial crimes were prosecuted?


It’s this long, wearying, corrosive experience of impunity that generates cynicism about corruption. It’s not just that the chances of being punished are so small but that the very rarity of prosecution makes it seem that those unfortunate shysters who do get jailed are being “singled out” – usually by “Them in Dublin”. The Mario Balotelli defence – “Why me?” – usually works in Ireland.

But it also generates another question: why not me? If the big shysters get away with it, why should I abide by any rules?

On top of this culture of impunity, there is the legacy of domination, the sense that Irish people have never really taken ownership of their State. We have one of the most centralised states in the democratic world – and the response to the crisis has been to make it even more so. Many people feel powerless, and powerlessness corrupts as much as power does. We’ve yet to construct a grown-up republic in which people feel responsible for the public realm. At the simple, everyday level, from Tidy Towns committees to GAA clubs to fundraising for a sick child, Irish people are brilliant at taking responsibility for themselves and their communities. But they’re denied the opportunity to do this with institutions, policies and systems. Treat people like irresponsible children, and some will behave accordingly.

Irredeemably corrupt

Does saying this amount to suggesting that the Irish as a people are irredeemably corrupt? On the contrary, given the lack of legal sanctions and the corrosive effects of powerlessness, it is remarkable so many Irish people are so decent, straight and public-spirited. If you consider that even the spiritual sanctions imposed by the church have lost their effect – there’s impunity from hell now too – and the justified loss of trust in authority, this is even more hopeful. It suggests that given half a chance, ours could be a good society.

My point has long been, not that “nothing can improve” but that things could improve quite quickly, often by doing entirely obvious things. Other countries have laws and law enforcement that make at least the most egregious scamsters worry about the consequences of getting caught. Regulation and personal accountability can change behaviour for the better. Real local democracy can give people control of how their own money is spent – forcing them to make adult choices but also giving them a sense of ownership.

The “democratic revolution” that Pat Rabbitte and Jan O’Sullivan believed was possible just a few years ago really is possible. It would not be perfect but it could give people hope that they might live in – and care for – their own republic. There’s no mystery about some of these reforms – many of them (a return to cabinet government; a parliament that actually makes – rather than merely passes – laws) are basic.

Create negativity

There’s nothing negative or cynical about saying the democracy we have is broken and needs to be reimagined. It’s just stating the obvious. What does create negativity and cynicism, though, is promising change and then shoring up the status quo.

There is a good recipe for creating public cynicism – tell citizens you’re going to radically challenge the bank bailout and the troika deal and then implement both; promise a sweeping democratic revolution and then give more and more power to unelected and unaccountable people while making a mockery of parliament by ramming through vital laws without real scrutiny; promise to protect the most vulnerable while passing four regressive budgets in a row. This is where the real negativity lies – hollow rhetoric is the black hole that swallows public trust.

Rite and Reason has been held over until tomorrow due to pressure on space