Opposition seeks the high moral ground in response to Coalition's embarrassment

 

BERTIE Ahern laid it on the line: the same ethical standards should apply, no matter who or what you were, Government Minister or backbench TD. He was "shocked" that John Bruton's initial statement of support, for Michael Lowry had indicated a contrary view.

With a general election less than a year away, the Fianna Fail leader was going for broke. The high moral ground beckoned. And Mr Ahern was going to stamp his distinctive leadership on the party. Allegations of "golden circles" and "cosy cartels" linking business and politics would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Des O'Malley signalled a similar view on behalf of the Progressive Democrats on Saturday, as news of Mr Lowry's resignation broke. Andy Bobby Molloy followed up with more of the same yesterday. There was to be no hiding place for politicians with questions to answer.

Michael Lowry had pleaded for time to answer questions about the expenditure by Dunnes Stores of £208,000 on his private residence at Thurles in 1992/93. He insisted that' all dealings by him and by his company were "entirely legitimate". There had been "no impropriety" on his part.

The opposition parties made some small space. The former Minister, now reduced to a political bit player, had lost his aura of importance. They would grant him time to defend himself, if he could. In the meantime, all fire, would be concentrated on the Taoiseach.

The barrage will intensify in the Dail tomorrow, when Mr Bruton rises to nominate Alan Dukes as, replacement Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications. Fianna Fail will want to know exactly what sort of inquiry the Government has commissioned into the affair. And it will put the boot firmly into the Government for perceived low standards in high places.

Before that happens, however, Fianna Fail will address the big picture. The big picture, involves the Taoiseach's implicit statement that higher ethical standards are required of a minister in government, rather than of a TD. "The same yardstick of standards should apply no matter who or what you are. Bertie is adamant about that," a spokesman declared.

Of secondary importance is Price Waterhouse report - commissioned by Margaret Heffernan in her financial struggle against her brother, Ben Dunne - which charts a long list of unorthodox payments to named individuals and companies including, it is said, a former Fianna Fail minister. That report should be handed over to the Revenue Commissioners, Mr Ahern suggested, and the law should take its course.

There is no doubt the Price Waterhouse report should be scrutinised by the Revenue Commissioners to ensure all taxes are properly paid. If necessary, the powers of the New Criminal Assets Bureau Act, might be employed to seize the information.

More than a Revenue audit may be required. The Revenue does not disclose its dealings with individual taxpayers - other than to publish, some details of eventual tax settlements - and such secrecy may not serve the public interest on this occasion. Passage of the long awaited Privilege and Compellability of Witnesses Bill would clear the way for a special Dail inquiry to check into any untoward connections between big business and politics. Such a development would also send a salutary message to the majority of Oireachtas members who responded to the recently established Register of Members Interests with something approaching contempt.

The fall of Michael Lowry has done a number of things. It has weakened the Government, damaged morale within Fine Gael and handed a pre election advantage, to Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats. It has also confirmed an all party commitment to high ethical, standards in public life.

The days under Charles Haughey when Fianna Fail, remained silent on the ethical difficulties being experienced by its political opponents are a thing of the past. Without being absolutely explicit, Mr Ahern has suggested tough new rules. Any of his Oireachtas members found guilty of tax evasion or of other unlawful or unethical activities would find no place within Fianna Fail.

It's how things should be. But, in Irish life, a long history of middle class "nod and wink" has held sway. There has been a tremendous reluctance by legislators of all political parties to address the issue of white collar crime, especially where fraud, taxation, and business shenanigans are concerned. Eamon Barnes, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is practically blue in the face calling for legislation in this privileged area but to no effect.

THE key recent occasions on which details of questionable business activities percolated down to the public reaction to Greencore, when the individuals concerned wrangled publicly over the spoils, and now in relation to an internal Dunnes Stores struggle.

The outburst of moral indignation precipitated by Mr Lowry's travails could yet provide a useful impetus for reform as the various parties prepare for the general election. With Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats in full cry, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Democratic Left will have little option but to don the mantle of change. In that regard the Electoral Amendment Bill, which deals with contributions to political, parties, may be dusted off and given priority.

In the short term, Fine Gael will suffer. But all would change should Mr Lowry manage to answer his, traducers A few days can transform the political landscape, as both Mr Lowry and Alan Dukes will vouch.

In that regard, the entrance of the former Fine Gael leader to Government could have a disturbing influence on the "chemistry" that has developed between the parties. Having been brought in from the cold by Mr Bruton, however, Mr Dukes is to push his luck by adopting an overly assertive approach to the Labour Party and Democratic Left.

There is still plenty of time for Fine Gael to mend its fences with the public. In spite of two solid weeks of Dail bombardment over the Judge Dominic Lynch fiasco, Fine Gael emerged strengthened in a weekend opinion poll, while Fianna Fail lost ground. Success in negotiations on another national wage agreement, not to mention a pre Christmas IRA, ceasefire, would bury the negative impact of the Lowry situation. And details of that Price Waterhouse report might help.