Libertas leader engaged on a vanity project


It is not Declan Ganley's wealth that is the issue but what he is doing with it to advance his personal political agenda, writes Noel Whelan 

SOME WEALTHY men treat themselves to a Porsche when they hit middle age.

Some extremely rich males can afford to go further and buy a racehorse, a football club, or maybe an entire newspaper. A number even go out and buy for themselves a political role.

Declan Ganley is merely the latest in a long line of self-made multimillionaires having fun with politics and enjoying the attention and celebrity status which it brings.

Businessmen cum-political celebrities are the modern equivalent of the wealthy men of old who used to purchase titles in the House of Lords or buy up "rotten borough" seats in the House of Commons. Some had a genuine desire for public service: some had comprehensive political positions.

Most, however, were motivated exclusively by ego.

Silvio Berlusconi is the most prominent modern example of this trend. The Italian billionaire made his money in real estate and insurance and went on to buy AC Milan football club and several TV stations. Bored with those achievements, he decided to found and fund a new political party. He managed to leverage his wealth and media interests into politics so successfully that he has become prime minister on several occasions.

The reason why many have failed to understand the Libertas phenomenon is because they have failed to appreciate Ganley's true motivation. He doesn't have a secret plan to serve the interest of US neo-cons in thwarting greater European integration as some suggest. His real objectives are more limited and more personal.

His need for an audience is such that he now wants to play in the larger European political arena. Libertas is not a plot for European political domination, it's merely a vanity project.

Ganley is being well rewarded for his efforts at attracting attention. On Thursday, hundreds of European journalists turned up at his lavish new offices in Brussels for what was billed as an announcement of his plans to advance Libertas as a Europe-wide political party running candidates in all member states in next June's European elections.

But the event failed to live up to its billing because Ganley was unable to give any details of whether Libertas has an organisation in any other member state let alone identify any potential candidates.

The reality is that as of now Libertas in Ireland is effectively a one-man operation and outside of Ireland is no more than a web address. For the cost of the rent of an office in Brussels, a few hours of web design and a skeletal staff Ganley has managed to generate the myth that a new political force has arrived.

A series of recent media investigations have attempted to discover how Ganley made his millions. Some media outlets and individual political opponents have, as Ganley sees it, crossed the line, in their enthusiasm to explore his background and have been punished with libel writs.

Frankly, I for one am not overly interested in where Ganley got his wealth. I am more concerned about what he is doing with his money in the Irish and European political system.

This country now has a relatively rigorous - if still incomplete - system of checks and balances, setting limits on and requiring greater transparency about political donations and expenditure. These reforms were designed, in light of various tribunal revelations, to restrain the influence of wealthy donors in our politics.

But they don't appear to adequately protect against the prospect of a very wealthy person using his or her own money to distort our political system.

Before last June's Lisbon referendum Ganley repeatedly denied that he was funding Libertas. When pressed he repeatedly sought to convey the impression that Libertas was funded by donations from individuals. He often instanced a particular taxi man or other unnamed donor who had sent the campaign €50.

What Ganley didn't reveal then but has had to reveal since, is that he advanced a €200,000 loan to Libertas. There is nothing illegal in this, provided the loan was given on a commercial basis. However, it means not only was Libertas founded and fronted by Ganley but he floated Lisbon for much of the cost of its campaign.

Ganley is unlikely to be as successful in politics as some of his multi-millionaire political predecessors or as his hype suggests. However, for as long as media continues to pay him so much attention he will continue to play politics. It beats taking up golf.