Truth hard to find in torrent of Mahon facts

THERE IS a local authority down the country in which, until recently, the procedure for having a pre-application discussion with…

THERE IS a local authority down the country in which, until recently, the procedure for having a pre-application discussion with a planning official was as follows.

You had to call on a Monday morning immediately after 9am, in the hope of obtaining a slot on the Wednesday of the following week. If you rang the council’s number at 10 seconds to nine, it would ring out. At two seconds past nine, it was already engaged. You tried again at 30 seconds past nine – still engaged. You made further attempts at a minute and two minutes past nine.

No luck. At three minutes past nine, the number might miraculously ring. A voice would answer and you would make your request. Unfortunately, the voice would convey, the slots had all been taken. You would have to set your alarm for next week.

There are different forms of corruption. There is, for example, the corruption of official arrogance, of forgetting who is the servant, who the paymaster. Most of the problematic transactions investigated by the Mahon tribunal found roots in the culture of contempt and self-importance which pervades many of our public institutions. In a fair and reasonable planning process, there would be no necessity and no opportunity for Frank Dunlops.

The tribunal was intended to draw our attention to such cultural contexts, at least as much as to individual venality. Over the past fortnight, the discussion about the tribunal’s final report has broken down approximately as follow: 90 per cent about Bertie; 5 per cent about Pee Flynn and 5 per cent about the planning process. Since the Bertie saga has no ostensible connection with planning issues, the Mahon tribunal may be deemed to have failed in its primary objective.

But such considerations have not diminished the enthusiasm of the apocalyptics who, using the report as their plinth, have diagnosed the existence of corruption at every level of Irish life, and declared the Irish State “morally as well as economically bankrupt”. The silliness of such analyses has been rendered virtually undetectable by the scale of the Mahon report and the model of journalism interpreting its “findings” for the benefit of citizens lacking time to investigate the details.

If you started reading the report upon its publication on March 22nd, and since then done nothing but eat and sleep, you might now be within sight of the end. Yet, within minutes of the publication of this 3,211-page document, commentators were outlining its allegedly definitive pronouncements in respect of named individuals and the general culture of alleged corruption.

The picture that emerged in those first few hours has not since been altered or refined in any substantive way. But if you delve into the detail of the report, many serious doubts before long assail you concerning its reliability and the reasonableness of its trains of logic.

Following my column last week about Cllr John Hannon, who Mahon found had taken a corrupt payment from Frank Dunlop, I was contacted by numerous people who wanted to know if I had published the entirety of the information in the report concerning Hannon’s dealings with Dunlop. If I had, some ventured, the implications were shocking. I had indeed reproduced all of the relevant reasoning of the tribunal. No other media personnel have seen fit to pursue the apparent injustice against John Hannon.

The nature of the process by which the findings of a tribunal are received leaves open the possibility of injustices arising from errors or human frailty remaining undetected or unacknowledged. Just as delays can mean the denial of justice, a torrent of information may overwhelm truth.

The treatment of such matters in the media exacerbates such dangers: intense initial interest in headline findings, followed by indifference to detail. I heard a senior Fianna Fáil official on radio pronouncing sentence on Bertie and Pee Flynn, but when asked to comment on a particular element of the Mahon report, she said she was unfamiliar with “the details”. Likewise practically everyone. And yet, careers and reputations have been disposed of, and word has gone out around the world that, as one high-priest of political probity put it, “corruption operated on a vast scale in Irish public life”.

I could write every week for the next year about discrepancies, absurdities and illogicality I have uncovered on the basis of a cursory browse through the Mahon report. For example, try as I might I have been unable to identify any objectively discernible pattern or rationale in relation to why many payments are adjudged to be legitimate and only a few “inappropriate” or “corrupt”. (And what, by the way, is the difference between an “inappropriate” payment and a “corrupt” one?)

Does this matter – that we have already “decided” everything even though most of us actually know next to nothing? Wasn’t this report supposed to be about more than the fleeting titillation of public appetite for scandal and the vindication of politically-motivated prognoses about the systemic immorality of Irish life?

Wasn’t Flood/Mahon supposed to be about discovering the truth?