According to a report two and a half years in the making, Ireland suffers from a high level of “legal corruption”, where business and politics are too close for comfort. I would largely call this self-evident, and I’m sure just about any sensible individual here would think the same. High ranking politicians serve on the boards of high level businesses. Businessmen gain civil positions with relative ease. In many ways, the two are largely indistinguishable from each other.
The question today, at least, is not entirely concerned with the similarities between two different facets of the Irish elite. Let’s go back to the politicians, and see if there is a significant difference in corruption between the political parties. This largely means comparing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, although I will try to include the smaller parties where I can.
Since 1937, Fianna Fáil have been in power for roughly 40 years, and Fine Gael have been in power 23 years. (I will abbreviate them FF and FG.) FF were in power alone, for the most part – their first coalition government was with the Progressive Democrats in 1989. FG, in comparison, have never been in power without a coalition, normally with Labour.
Dr. Elaine Byrne has written much about the history of corruption in Ireland. Her article from Transparency Ireland has a brief description of the relevant law; in essence, she plots out a national sense of romanticism that took hold after independence, encapsulated in the idea that Ireland had such a high moral consciousness that laws were not needed to combat corruption. Self-regulation, apparently, was the way to go even when it was shown to have failed. Ireland only gained specific anti-corruption laws in 1995.
It goes without saying that FF have had the greater opportunity and means to be corrupt. But it is worth noting that FF have only been in power a little over twice as long as FG; should we see the same ratio of corruption between the two as well? That assumes all else being equal, which is not very likely, and measuring corruption is rather difficult.
Nevertheless, let us try to make some kind of comparison.
The first page list of a google search for “Fianna fail corruption” returns a full ten links which discuss or allege corruption on the part of FF. The third link is the FF Wikipedia entry. Of the list returned by the same search done for Fine Gael, the first two links refer to the same Politics.ie thread listing improper acts by FG. All other links are tangental, and do not discuss or allege corruption by FG.
The fifth link is, once again, the FF Wikipedia entry.
Running the same search for Labour and the Greens turns up nothing of interest, bar echoes of disgust that the Greens may have facilitated FF corruption in order to stay in power and Labour might do the same.
What we can gather from this is that corruption on the part of FF is far, far more visible than that done by other political parties, to the point where corruption is synonymous with Fianna Fáil in the Irish political sphere. It’s a rather damning situation when you consider that FF have only been in power twice as long as FG and others; as they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Instances of FF corruption have been well documented, so there is no need to go back over them again. Let’s look instead at FG – these are not all the instances I know of, but I believe they are representative.
In 1996, it was revealed that Michael Lowry had an extension to his house paid for by businessman Ben Dunne. He was also found to have taken payments for, once again, favours for wealthy businessmen in the best Irish tradition. He resigned from Fine Gael, became an independent, and (tellingly) now supports the FF government.
In 2001, Fine Gael were under inquiry regarding their taxes for a nine year period ending in 1995, and made a contribution to the revenue to settle all outstanding issues which cost over £111,000 punts. This was for “under the counter” payments to employees where they did not pay PRSI and other taxes.
In 2003, Liam Cosgrave resigned from Fine Gael when it became known through the Flood Tribunal that he had accepted donations to rezone land favourably to property developers. He pleaded guilty in 2005 to donations offence – that is to say, he did not declare donations where he was obliged to by law.
In 2009, Fine Gael councillor Anne Devitt was listed as a tax defaulter and paid €50,000 to the revenue as a settlement.
Something that I find very interesting about these instances is that the politicians in question resign or make reparations in every case. Liam Cosgrave and Michael Lowry left FG or were evicted, once it became known that they had acted in a corrupt fashion. Others paid what they owed, or in the case of Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, exhausted their assets to pay what they could.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s case is very interesting because of the specific mention of it in the Moriarty tribunal that compares him with his contemporary, the infamous Charles Haughey. From their report:
In summary it would appear that in compromising his indebtedness with the Bank, Dr. Fitzgerald disposed of his only substantial asset, namely, his family home at Palmerston Road, a property which would now be worth a considerable sum of money. As in Mr. Haughey’s case, there was a substantial discounting or forbearance shown in Dr. Fitzgerald’s case. However in contrast with Mr. Haughey’s case, Dr. Fitzgerald’s case involved the effective exhaustion of his assets in order to achieve a settlement whereas Mr. Haughey’s assets were retained virtually intact.
Fitzgerald received a loan from Ansbacher in order to invest in a company that subsequently went bust. He received the loan under more favourable circumstances than normal, it seems, but once the company failed, he did all he could to repay it and cooperated as required. This was after his involvement in Irish politics. Compare that to the massive financial misconduct of Haughey during his time in office, for which he fought the tribunals at every turn…
Although I can’t find any actual allegations of corruption in the Greens, there is a feeling that they share part of the blame for willingly going into government with FF, knowing as we all did that FF were corrupt, and allowing the train wreck of NAMA to take shape. Their actions are indicative of the whole mentality of ‘power at any cost’ that permeates Irish politics, and it’s worth noting here at least. The Public Inquiry blog predicts that they will leave the coalition soon, but I fear that the more power hungry members will keep the party there well past its due date.
I can’t find any allegations of corruption in Labour, and details on the same in the Progressive Democrats seem vague.
It’s worth noting how politicians feel about corruption, in general or in specific instances. Ivor Callely is a fine test case, although I tried to find a statement from Enda Kenny on him and I came up with nothing. (Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places?) The Public Enquiry blog has done the work for us in compiling a list of statements from other various notable figures regarding Callely and expenses.
Two in particular stood out for me. The first, from FG Senator Regan:
I think this is an important issue, an issue of fraud by a member of this house.
He was immediately asked to withdraw that statement, and did so. The second, from FF/Independent TD Jackie Healy Rae, regarding the fact that he travels to and from the Dáil with another TD, and whether one or both of them claim expenses:
I know my own business and I won’t be declaring it to you or anybody else.
Do look at that full list, if you can. It makes for very interesting reading. What really stands out about these two statements is what it says about their parties, when you examine them a little closer.
On one hand, we have Fine Gael – a party led by a non-entity and apparently composed of politicians who cannot stand up for their own opinions for fear of losing political capital. Senator Regan expressed a valid opinion which has a quite solid base considering what we know so far about Callely’s actions. A Seanad committee found that he had intentionally misrepresented where he lived in order to claim over €80,000 in expenses, and he’s responded by trying to block any investigation. Believe it or not, there’s another word for when you intentionally misrepresent information for monetary gain, and that word is ‘fraud’.
On the other hand, we have Fianna Fáil – a party of arrogance and zero accountability that wavers between open hostility and twisted evasion of the public’s questions.
Other quotes from the article are representative, I think:
“Apparently he (Callely) is hunting for a get out clause. I think it’s all very nauseating and awfully bad for the body politic and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“The answers that have come forward to date are not very clear. Senator Callely has to explain the situation to the Senate Committee… There are certainly serious questions being asked and I believe he should be absolutely up front and clear about it.”
“I’m very conscious listening to the discussion so far that the Irish public is listening out there very, very worried and probably incensed… They’re not understanding some of the language that’s being used -vouched, unvouched etc and I think it’s very confusing.”
And where would we be without a quote from the Taoiseach? Brian Cowen has said that Callely should ‘consider his position’, and it seems that he will not ask him to resign from the Seanad because it could be embarrassing if he refuses. Could we hope to be treated so gently if we were under investigation for massive fraud? I think not.
Other quotes in that article are typically wishy-washy. Only Senator Doherty from Sinn Féin had the balls to call out another politician directly, when he questioned why FG TD Dinny McGinley was claiming so much more in expenses for traveling the same distance as him. No one – no one– condemned Callely for his actions and the damage he has done to the trust between the government and the public.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The conclusion that I would draw here is that not all political parties are created equal in Ireland when it comes to corruption – but we still have no real options if we desire to vote for a truly capable, honest party.
Fianna Fáil have shown themselves to have a culture of systematic legal corruption, where it is silently tolerated or encouraged as long as it does not cause the party to lose face. I think it’s clear that any political party that puts its own image and power so far above the needs of the country is not fit to govern.
Fine Gael have shown themselves to be more honest than Fianna Fáil, but that they are still worthless as the opposition. Honesty counts for little if the political party in question is completely unwilling to rock the boat or call their opponents out for their mistakes and crimes; such a party does not have the courage or will to govern.
Labour, the Greens and others are largely non-existent in the face of FF and FG, probably due to their respective party sizes. So, we have a choice between the corrupt, the less corrupt-more honest-but largely spineless, and the gamble that somehow Labour would be able to cobble together a working Dáil from everyone left over.
It will take a massive paradigm shift in the consciousness of the Dáil, and indeed the voting Irish public, to really put a stop to legal corruption in Ireland. It could also take a huge amount of luck if enough non-FF/FG politicians were elected to create a new, unknown and untested government, and if that government were really committed to the ideals of transparency and accountability. Could Labour deliver that, knowing the Greens sold their soul to get into power once? Maybe they could, if the alternative was corruption on a grand scale by the strong, or corruption on a minor scale by the weak.
This, however, would not be something I’d bet on. I feel for every honest politician in Ireland, from every party. They are sorely and completely outnumbered, and they will have their work cut out for them if they want to effect real change.