It's time to put levels of corruption in context

There is an orgy of secret-telling going on. We even know half of the Third Secret of Fatima

There is an orgy of secret-telling going on. We even know half of the Third Secret of Fatima. The other half is still a bit worrying, because we used to be told that the Third Secret was about the end of the world.

Come to think of it, some people are acting as though the secrets revealed in the tribunals are the end of the world, as though they are confirmation of our dirty rottenness, our very peculiarly Irish corruption. The whited sepulchres are opened, and we stink.

Some things do stink. The stories from the haemophilia inquiry are a dreadful litany of neglect and criminal carelessness, laced with contempt for human feelings. People died and are dying, and yet still had to fight for the chance to be heard. That's shameful. That's shocking.

Of course, the revelations from the Flood tribunal are appalling. But am I the only one who is saddened but not shocked, and, dare I say it, not even surprised? We all knew that shopping centres did not spring up like chrome-and-concrete mushrooms because of chance spores blown in the wind. We suspected some councillors were crooked. We even knew some of the names, but could not prove it.


Perhaps some of the over-reaction of journalists can be traced to the fact that the magic word "election" is in the air, which always causes media people to salivate. But are we not in danger of going just a teeny-weensy bit over the top, by declaiming from a height the unique awfulness of the twisted Irish psyche which causes such corruption to flourish?

There is no such thing as a perfect society. One does not have to resort to the casual brutality of a Stalin to prove that particular point. One only has to look at that bastion of democracy, the United States, which as we speak incarcerates 2 million citizens in its prisons, or more than half the population of the Republic of Ireland.

Incidentally, that same great democratic nation also has an ongoing debate about campaign finance for parties and candidates. It is not much closer than we are to the possibility of biting the corporate hand which feeds Democrats and Republicans.

What about the sleaze associated with the Conservatives in power? Or if that's too mild, New Labour's "ethical foreign policy", which involved supplying arms and munitions to Indonesia? I could go on.

There is no anger as corrosive, no cynicism as deep as that of the disappointed idealist who still has not come to terms with the fact that human beings are not perfectible and that there is no perfect system. That cynicism is always projected outwards, the condemnation is always for others who fail to meet the exacting standards of one personally without sin.

We are in danger of failing to recognise two rather obvious but important points. Firstly, all Irish people are not dirty, rotten scoundrels. Not all business people are crooked. Not all politicians are on the take. Some do a job which puts a tremendous strain on family life, all for a career which may be short and fraught.

Secondly, by continually pointing out the flaws we undermine those who are not corrupt, especially in the eyes of the young who grow more disenchanted by the moment with the system.

There is much talk about young people's hedonism, their materialistic individualism, their unwillingness to get involved in politics or even to vote. Some of that analysis is accurate, but only some. Underlying all the "party till we drop bravado", there is often a deep sense of powerlessness.

They are not as idealistic as those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, but that is partly because they have been fed a diet of the world's awfulness since they were born. The younger generation don't feel they can change the world, which is sad. Previous generations had that glorious arrogance of youth, the belief they could do things better. If asked, this generation will say things like: "Yes, one person can make a big impact, but I am not that person."

If we continue to harp on about the general awfulness of stinking corrupt little Ireland, fewer and fewer young people will believe they can make a difference. Fewer and fewer will want to get involved in cleaning up the system.

None of this is to suggest that we should condone what is going on. I am not proposing some quietist vision of the universe where good and evil are seen to be always more or less in equilibrium, so that there is no incentive to struggle against wrongdoing.

Planning violations are not victimless crimes. But let us be realistic. There are degrees of contamination, ranging from the venality of a councillor who could not resist a few grand of a backhander, to the stony-faced liars for whom corruption was a way of life. Not to mention the seriously sad people who keep thousands in the bathroom cabinet along with the Bisodol.

Are any of us so immune to temptation that we are sure we would not take a handy few bob if it we were offered to us by the personable Mr Dunlop? Especially if we could rationalise it as help with legitimate expenses? To understand is not to condone. Ironically, perhaps, often it is those who are clear-eyed about the persuasiveness of human weakness who find the energy to clean up their own patch, to lobby for positive change. An activist friend of mine has admirable serenity, despite having fought for unpopular causes for 20 years. He explained it to me once by saying, "Any battle worth fighting will probably not be won in my lifetime. That gives me the freedom to do what I can."

This is not at all the same as saying we do not need to pass legislation on the grounds that dishonest politicians will simply find more sophisticated means of being corrupt. Assuredly, political parties deserve a mighty lash for not tackling this open sore years ago. Those up to their earlobes in corruption must be exposed, held accountable and punished.

I am simply suggesting that we acknowledge that human frailty and malice is a given in every society. Indulging in an orgy of despising and rejecting our national character is both corrosive and simply wrong. In the Transparency International's 1999 Corruption Perception Index, Ireland had a score of 7.7, where 10 equals being corruption free. Not as good as the Scandinavian countries or New Zealand, but ahead of Austria, the US, Portugal, France, Spain and Japan, to name but a few. The media perform a valuable service when they expose evil, be it in church or State. But in our reforming zeal, we need to maintain a sense of proportion. Otherwise we may unwittingly cause a deep-rooted cynicism to flourish which will extinguish the very energy most required to fight for change.