Giving the people of Ireland a chance not chancers


HERE IS an obvious but startling fact: for roughly 20 of the last 30 years, Ireland has been ruled by men with, to put it mildly, a bad attitude to money.

Former taoisigh Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern were raking in very large sums from private donors for their own use. Albert Reynolds did not do this. But he was told in 1992 that Pádraig Flynn had received £50,000 from Tom Gilmartin – and did nothing about it.

The following year, he wrote to Owen O’Callaghan, who was then lobbying his government in relation to a stadium development, seeking a very large donation for Fianna Fáil.

O’Callaghan, according to the Mahon report, felt he had “little choice but to comply”. O’Callaghan understood that “a failure on his part to so contribute would impact negatively” on his plans. The tribunal finds that Reynolds thus “actively engage(d) in . . . pressuring a businessman” for money – “an abuse of political power and government authority”.

So, for two-thirds of the last 30 years, we’ve been ruled by men who abused political power in order to raise money either for themselves or their party. When something is as common as this, it is not the exception – it is the norm. It is not the weather – it’s the climate. It is not a crime against our system – it is our system. Or, to put it another way, the freaks at the top of Irish politics since the 1980s are those who have not abused the authority of government for personal or party financial gain.

And this systematic abuse of power did not occur in a dictatorship. Between them, these men won six general elections. There has been, in other words, large-scale public consent to the abuse. People may claim that they were afraid to challenge the system, but Ireland is not Burma. No one was tortured or murdered for speaking out. With a secret ballot, it is very easy to put a silent mark on a piece of paper to register one’s disgust.

People may, say, too, that they were fooled. They were not. Haughey openly flaunted his vast wealth even though he’d been in full-time politics since 1957. Ahern won a general election even after he’d admitted that he was on the take.

To whinge now about having been misled and betrayed is to insult one’s own intelligence. If you were stupid enough not to see the venality that was written up in lights, you’re not fit to be an urban district councillor, much less, as with Micheál Martin, an aspirant to the office of taoiseach. But even beyond the inner circles of politics, it took wilful blindness not to have a decent sense of how the system worked.

It was public consent that made abuse of power the norm. When, in a free society, there is nothing deviant about roguery, it can only be because it accords with the values – or lack of values – of a large mass of people. This is what we have to confront. We can spit on Bertie Ahern till our mouths run dry, but he didn’t invent the amorality of our public culture. He was never a large enough figure to be able to shape the way Irish society thinks and feels. He was just an artful dodger, a skilled exploiter of the opportunities created by widespread tolerance for ingratiating chancers.

We can’t take refuge, either, in comforting explanations for this deep-rooted amorality. The pat answer would be to link it to the decline of religion and in particular of the authority of institutional Catholicism. But the facts don’t support this thesis: Haughey came to power in 1979, when church control was still in its prime. He, Reynolds and Ahern governed as conservative and devout Catholics.

So what does account for the amorality? Powerlessness, surely. Power corrupts, but so does a sense of powerlessness. Civic virtue comes from a belief in both rights and responsibilities, but too many Irish people don’t really believe they have either the rights or the duties of citizens. They don’t have the right to public services – so they wheedle with TDs to get them. Why, then, would they demand high standards of probity from those politicians? If they weren’t cunning enough to pull strings and extract favours, what use would they be?

What it all means is that there’s really no point in making one or two cosmetic reforms in response to Mahon. Systemic corruption demands systemic change. And the purpose of that change has to be the wholesale reinvention of Irish democracy. Irish people won’t stop wheedling and nodding and winking until they believe they really have the power to shape the public realm in which they live.

Powerlessness has made us a nation of chancers. It lets us off the hook – someone else is always in charge: the Brits, the church, Fianna Fáil, Frankfurt. The one chance we’ve never taken collectively is the risk of believing that we have full responsibility for ourselves and each other. Unless we demand the creation of a real republic – built the hard way, from the bottom up – we will breed many more Berties.