Time finally to tackle our blatant failings


The banking scandals expose a badly flawed mindset that threatens the nation’s future

IRELAND BORROWED the emperor’s clothes, made of a special cloth that became invisible to anyone who was unusually stupid. Sure enough, everybody marvelled at the intricate pattern of the expensive material.

The media praised the exquisite property of the fabric. The financial institutions were infatuated by the sumptuous textile and encouraged the emperor to weave more and more. Those from law, architecture, business, construction, and others were seduced by the detailed stitching which miraculously sutured the seamless and hemless garment together. The churches no longer had opinions on such matters and stood back.

Politics agreed with the public, and the public agreed with politics, that this was indeed the finest piece of clothing in the history of clothes. The tragedy of the Hans Christian Andersen parable is that by the end everybody knew, including the emperor, that he was naked.

Nonetheless the pretence continued. “This procession has got to go on,” the emperor told himself. “So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”

Sound familiar?

On Thursday the Public Accounts Committee published their report into Fás. Integrity was “undermined”. Internal organisational culture dictated that controls were “bypassed”. The level of oversight “was inadequate”. The board “failed to discharge its responsibilities in regard to ensuring good corporate governance”.

Friday’s Anglo Irish annual report had sections dedicated to “statement of directors’ responsibilities” and “corporate governance statement”.

The language of these findings has been worn by many of our institutions in recent years.

A National Integrity Study of Ireland, which I researched and authored with Transparency International Ireland, will be published next Monday.

Funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the report highlights a number of shortcomings which have weakened the quality of Ireland’s democracy and standards of governance.

In particular, the report underlines the fragility of our loose system of financial regulation. Ireland has been naked for some time now. On April Fools’ day, 2005, the New York Times referred to Ireland as the “Wild West of European finance”.

The Financial Action Task Force has outlined its concerns about the lack of prohibitions or controls in place for Irish financial institutions to deal with money laundering and shell banks. Last July, Ireland was warned by the European Commission to implement new money-laundering legislation or face legal action.

Year after year, the Comptroller and Auditor General has issued critical annual reports regarding financial irregularities, shortcomings in corporate governance, routine circumvention of procurement guidelines by public officials and wastage of public expenditure.

No one listened. Why?

Debate on impropriety has conventionally focused upon personalised accounts of scandals at the expense of a broader and deeper analysis of why and how such behaviour occurred in the first place. Hence last week’s obsession with the identity of the “Anglo Irish 10”, for example, which successfully diverted attention from wider economic problems.

A tradition of self-regulation and a crisis-led approach have historically dominated Ireland’s public service, professions, civil society and business.

Groundhog Day has ethically repeated itself within the three tribunal reports of the 1940s, the corruption inquiries of the 1970s and the ethical controversies of the recent past.

We have been here before. And on each occasion we dress these moral challenges with what

WB Yeats terms as polite, meaningless words and ignorant goodwill. Like the emperor, we move on, ignoring our blatant failings. In this mindset, blind loyalty and apathetic conformity are rewarded. Self-interest replaces a sense of nation. Lethargic thinking incentivises a fictitious self-regulatory system. Whistleblowers are pigeonholed as traitorous informers. The abdication of responsibility is intellectually accepted as one without consequences.

Hints of corruption are winked at and applauded by constituents as the social banditry of an urban Robin Hood. Politicians subject to tribunal scrutiny, such as Haughey, Burke, Lowry and Ahern, record exceptional electoral results. The Irish voting public accepts and reimburses the machine politics model as a legitimate means of conducting political activity.And so on and on and over again.

On Saturday, no less than 120,000 marched through Dublin in a protest organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The perception of an unequal burden of economic adjustment has caused deep anger and resentment.

“Something had to be done or the achievement of national independence would prove to have been a futility,” wrote TK Whitaker in his memoirs. The former secretary at the Department of Finance described Ireland of the 1950s as the “depths of hopelessness”.

Whitaker’s words were reincarnated on Sunday’s Week in Politics programme on RTÉ 1 television. A staid Ronan Fanning, UCD Professor of History, warned of the reality that politics was becoming irrelevant.

We cannot fail as a nation, as a people, in some pyrrhic victory. Let us be stark bloody naked together. Revel in the opportunity to dress ourselves in real clothes. Remind ourselves of Yeats’s premonition:

I sing what was lost and dread what was won,

I walk in a battle fought over again,

My king a lost king, and lost soldiers my men;

Feet to the Rising and Setting may run,

They always beat on the same small stone.