Party loyalty and political survival put before ethics
OPINION:The most damaging aspect of the O’Dea affair is the evident loss of a sense of what is right and what is not in politics writes, EUGENE REGAN
THOMAS MACAULAY once wrote that the measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out. Well, over the last number of days we have seen Willie O’Dea’s real character laid bare. And for that matter Brian Cowen’s and John Gormley’s. But more on them a little later.
It has been a sorry and tawdry story. Incredible stuff really.
A senior Cabinet Minister defaming and slandering an election opponent. The same senior Cabinet Minister then falsely swearing an affidavit before the High Court as the defamed party tries to injunct the Minister and prevent the repetition of the comments. And all of this allegedly triggered by a tip-off by the Garda to the Minister involved.
This is not a plotline from House of Cards. This is politics in Ireland in 2010 under a Brian Cowen-led Government. And it stinks. Politics has been dragged into the gutter by the thousands in cash lodgments that Bertie Ahern could not explain, and it is still in the gutter. This was clear when Minister O’Dea was backed to the hilt by all his Fianna Fáil colleagues and the hollowed-out Greens in a motion of confidence in the Dáil on Wednesday.
The fact of Willie O’Dea’s resignation last night after the pressure on the Greens finally forced them to act does little to actually change this. Neither the Greens nor Fianna Fáil nor Willie O’Dea come out of this whole affair with any credit.
Brian Cowen initially did what is his wont: he backed a Fianna Fáil colleague regardless of the damning evidence before him. As he did with Bertie Ahern, so he did with Willie O’Dea. Until he had no other option he was prepared to back a person who was clearly in the wrong, just because they were branded Fianna Fáil.
There is very little left to be said about the Greens. One day they vote confidence in Minister O’Dea, the next they are forced into acting to seek his removal from office. The perverse thing is that the very same facts present themselves about this case the day after the motion of confidence as presented the day of the motion of confidence.
The only thing that ultimately forced them to act was the fear that they would have to pull out of Government in support of their party chairman, Senator Dan Boyle.
His twitter on Wednesday night put the Greens in a corner and forced them to act. Is this the first time in Irish political history that a tweet brought down a senior Minister? Remarkable.
Through all of this the fact is that decisions were not being made on the basis of any guiding principles of right and wrong or even with regard to the rule of law. Decisions were made on tribal lines or on the basis of political expediency.
The final conclusion to the affair was not driven by Brian Cowen, John Gormley or Willie O’Dea doing what was right. It was driven by what was politically necessary.
I think this is the most damaging aspect of this whole affair. We’ve lost all sense of what is right or acceptable in politics. The corrosive effect of the Ahern years – “our ethics are to get in here and stay in here” – has fundamentally damaged our political system.
How is it even possible that a Minister who slandered a political opponent and then swore a false statement in an affidavit before the High Court that he had not done so, could still remain in office? Because, in post-Ahern Irish politics, anything goes. No wonder the public have grown increasingly sick and tired of politics and politicians.
It is apparent to me that, with the playing out of the O’Dea affair, we have arrived at a point that the 20th-century American writer Jean Toomer described most aptly. He said that acceptance of prevailing standards often means that we have no standards of our own. The prevailing standards the Government is operating off in Irish politics are those of Bertie Ahern. The result is that the current Fianna Fáil party has no standards. They do have one guiding principle remaining: blind loyalty to party colleague, come what may.
Cutting through the blind loyalty displayed by Brian Cowen et al to Minister O’Dea, one thing becomes quickly apparent. Just as in the defence of Ahern, almost everything Fianna Fáil Ministers are saying on this issue is wrong. Factually wrong. Legally wrong. Ethically wrong.
A few quick examples should paint a clearer picture. Both Minister O’Dea and the Taoiseach have tried to present the Minister’s false statement as a simple case of mistaken recollection.
But let’s take a look at the timeline. The Minister made the original allegation on March 10th. On April 14th he signed a sworn affidavit to the courts. Only five weeks after he alleged a political rival was running a brothel he was claiming he didn’t remember doing so. He denied making the statement three times in one page of his affidavit.
This “mistaken recollection” argument has remarkable connotations of a previous defence offered in similar circumstances by another senior Fianna Fáil Minister. The defence didn’t work then and it should not work now.
Brian Cowen also told the Dáil yesterday “the matter was a personal one . . . was dealt with and resolved in open court . . . and the matter is closed.”
However, in his own affidavit Minister O’Dea asserted: “I was fully entitled to raise this issue in my capacity as an elected public representative” and identified himself in the very first paragraph of the affidavit as a public representative, TD and a Government Minister. This fatally undermines any suggestion this was a personal matter only.
As for the claims from the Minister and his Government backers that the matter was dealt with in open court, this is simply not true. The case was settled between the parties, not in open court. The judge on the day was not made aware of the previous injunction hearings, the false statement in the affidavit of the Minister nor of the judgment of April 20th. In any event perjury is an offence against the State separate to that particular action and can be prosecuted separately.
The Taoiseach suggests the Minister corrected his mistake when he realised it and the Minister asserts that his apology for his false statement was provided in good faith and on his own initiative.
This is patently untrue as it was only on foot of being confronted with his false statement in a transcript form that he withdrew his denials. His affidavit states that Minister O’Dea “emphatically and categorically denied having made the statement”, the statement he had in fact made.
All these facts describe a Government that simply refused to face the reality of a Minister who had slandered an opponent, provided a false sworn statement to the High Court and then insisted it was no big deal.
One day after having had his colleagues vote confidence in him he has been forced from office. Crucially, not one fact in this case has changed since Wednesday. Voted confidence by Fianna Fáil and the Greens one day, forced out the next. All that changed was the political imperative to stay in Government. Some things in Irish politics really don’t change.
Eugene Regan is a Fine Gael Senator on the Agricultural Panel