Mr O'Dea's resignation

 

FIANNA FÁIL still doesn’t get it. The collapse in support for the majority partner in Government is explained in large part by the failure of Ministers to maintain acceptable standards in public office and to be accountable for their actions. Remember the performances of Bertie Ahern and his various colleagues before tribunals of sworn inquiry? Serving ministers consistently refused to accept responsibility for policy decisions that helped to beggar society. So, instead of taking the correct course of action and asking Willie O’Dea to consider his position, the Taoiseach put party before his public obligation to uphold better standards in public life.

Mr Cowen has not been alone in failing to recognise and to uphold basic ethical standards. Senior Fianna Fáil Ministers accused those who criticised Mr O’Dea’s behaviour of acting in a despicable manner. They represented the episode as amounting to a political stroke, rather than a matter that would define this Government’s views on ethical standards. It was a shabby performance and has further diminished public confidence in the political process.

By “bouncing” the Green Party into supporting a terminally wounded Mr O’Dea in the Dáil by tabling a “vote of confidence” at short notice, Mr Cowen not only damaged his Coalition partners but risked shortening the life of this Government. The Green Party was initially supine in voting confidence in Mr O’Dea. It girded its loins when it struck home that, novices though they may be to the realities of coalition government, their suspension of moral judgment on an issue of standards in government left them like the emperor with no clothes. There was no coming back, especially after former senator Déirdre de Búrca’s accusations of their spinelessness last week.

Public confidence in many forms of authority and leadership, be it in politics, the business community or the Catholic Church has been badly shaken in recent times. Many people are disillusioned. The recession has deepened public cynicism. Fianna Fáil Ministers have grown arrogant, smug and complacent. They behave, on occasion, as if they are no longer constrained by the rules. And when they break them, they are not held responsible.

This matter should not have reached the Dáil. Mr O’Dea should have resigned for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious reason was because he had maligned a political opponent during an election campaign by claiming he was involved in a brothel. Such an accusation if proven amounted to an offence under the Electoral Abuses Act of 1923 and, could have barred him from the Dáil. In defending himself against that charge, Mr O’Dea swore an untrue affidavit for a High Court action. In doing so, he claims to have made an honest mistake. But he made no attempt to confirm the truthfulness of his denial. Had he done so at the time, he would have impaled himself on the original charge.

The Greens are in a better position today than they were yesterday. A hard lesson has been learned.