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Crooked harp

Elaine Byrne takes the historical perspective on political corruption in IrelandReview by Michael Smith 


Political corruption is big business in Ireland. The Mahon Report stated, admittedly hyperbolically, that “corruption in Irish political life was endemic and systemic, affecting every level of government”.  Now the issue has its first important book and its champion.

Elaine Byrne is one of Ireland’s feistiest and best-informed forces for transparency and ethics in politics and she is only thirty-three. She teaches Comparative Political Reform in Trinity College Dublin, though she’s also something of an activist, including for a lengthy time with Fine Gael. She claims she helped all the political parties with their exciting reform agendas at the general election, she’s worked for the UN, the World Bank, Transparency International and Global Integrity and she plays Gaelic football. Her Irish Times articles on Iceland’s citizens’ assembly culminated in the We the Citizens initiative which she considers proved that deliberative democracy works, though some may think it proves mostly that deliberative democracy initiatives can be irrelevant.

She’s a tenacious contributor to radio and television, though she has noted “this can depend on who owns the media these days”. For instance, Denis O’Brien’s been in legal correspondence with her over her meanness about him and the ESAT Licence. What harm? Byrne is always entertaining, opinionated and sparkily quirky: it is typical of her humour that she calls this book after the harp, symbol of all that needs strings pulled.

Elaine Byrne is the sort of academic who has ‘mentors’, one of whom wrote her Foreword. Although, she insists on saying, “older men don’t get on with her very well” (she once accused  Éamon Dunphy of being “middle-aged”), the prevalence of the usual blazered sixty-something media academics in the acknowledgements section of the book and indeed at the recent launch of her book suggests they at least don’t ignore her.

Byrne’s task is to document if there has been a decline in standards “since the inauguration of Irish independence in 1922 to [sic] the loss of economic sovereignty in 2010”. At risk of spoiling it I can tell you now the answer is Yes. Recklessly creating a hostage, she says her central thesis is to challenge the conventional definition of corruption which is the abuse of public power for private gain, a formula which, especially when interpreted broadly, many think has stood staunchly up to scrutiny. Citing John Noonan’s definitive study on  bribery she says in fact what is corrupt depends on  history and culture. Although it is, despite 273 pages, in fact difficult to understand precisely what Byrne understands by corruption, in effect she seems to believe it is not a (transcendent) moral concept but a legal concept, and a moral concept that must be understood with reference to the morals of the time. Her case studies will show, she says, the dangers of “an outdated [could it be she actually means ‘hind-sighted’?] understanding of ethical transgressions”.  But do they really? Surely the proper standard for defining corruption is the most progressive current one. In a world of inequality and catastrophic unsustainability it is necessary to appraise or judge actions of all sorts, especially dysfunctional actions such as corruption.

But Byrne repeatedly states that corruption is an evolving concept. She offers the belief that “what is unethical to one culture may be socially acceptable in another… The political culture and context of the period under scrutiny deters a value neutral contemporaneous appraisal”. Confusingly for someone who is against ‘value-neutral contemporaneous appraisal’ she also purports to be against cultural relativism – presumably because it sounds good to be against it. In dismissing the view that there is no obligation to learn from the past, she seems to be open only to the importance of learning how past corruption occurred, not why: “Such intellectual paralysis can be circumvented by studying how corruption evolved and developed as it did, in order to understand the rationale for why it occurred.  A descriptive case study analysis focuses on the context of an incident which allows the reader to evaluate how such behaviour occurred without imposing any obligation to make the judgement why”.

The reluctance to consider ‘why’ undermines the  comprehensiveness of this important and ambitious book. At one point she notes that “the political will to address the discrepancies of the 1963 Planning Act was absent. The Attorney General’s clear advice on conflict of interest in 1974 was ignored while other legislation on ethics was repealed”.  Regrettably she does not apply herself to the reasons why. In this case she might have looked no further than an old-fashioned favouring of vested interests over the public interest.

Byrne does not really focus on the sociological reasons for Ireland’s culture of corruption until late in the book: when she briefly moots antipathy to British rule leading to lack of faith in institutions and rules; personalism; deferentiality due to class, the church and the closed nature of economic power. Elsewhere she notes the reluctance of Irish people to vilify behaviour that promotes the interests of family rather than self.

As to another well-known reason – personal motivation – her theoretical fetish for history-centredness, which dictates the logic and direction of the book, often leaves her floundering on moral questions: “the ethical dimension of wrongdoing hinders objective analyses because any such scrutiny is suggestive of a judgmental and self-righteous undertone”. Worse still it subverts Byrne’s coherence and consistency as a commentator. Her method and the views it spawns undermines the visceral views she typically brings to the media debate where, like most of the intelligentsia – certainly whenever anyone shoves a pen or a microphone in her direction – she seems to judge people by the transcendent standard she derides – and scrupulously eschews – in the book. For example, an article by Byrne in the Sunday Independent in March begins: “The McCracken, Moriarty and Mahon tribunals showed, beyond doubt, that Charles J Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern were morally bankrupt”.

She also once got into a famous argument with Vincent Browne on his television show in which she berated him for not taking a moral stance on corruption, over Haughey, for example. Hold onto your moral compass for the following exchange.  Byrne: “You seem to be less than sure about your own opinion about Michael Lowry. Do you think that he’s not profoundly corrupt? Do you have a doubt about his ethical, moral character?” To which a phosphorescent Browne retorts: “I don’t make judgments about people’s moral character; unlike you, I don’t make judgments about anybody’s moral character”.

Not alone is she selling herself short by favouring the historical/cultural interpretation over “the ethical dimension” in the book  but she also in fact takes an ethical stance herself in the media, but the wrong ethical stance. Byrne fails to recognise the difference between taking a moral stance on an individual and taking a moral stance on the actions of an individual. There are ways of criticising ethics without judging the perpetrator of the unethical act  and there are utilitarian reasons for condemning corruption, including that it militates against the common good, efficiency, welfare-maximisation, fairness, equality and sustainability. Byrne misconstrues the provenance of morality which does not necessarily depend on God or other forces for righteousness. For example it is of the essence of the egalitarian ethic that   all humans are treated as of equal moral value, though of course egalitarianism judges acts of inequality – such as corruption  – harshly.

The obscurity of the logic she pursues in the book exacerbates the confusion on ethics.  So, for example, she writes that “the moral costs of disreputable transgressions increased as the probability of being discovered by a more inquisitive media was more likely”. A more conventional, serviceable, view is that immorality and moral costs do not in any way depend on being discovered, ex post facto. And she believes that “what is corrupt today may be the kernel of tomorrow’s norms and vice versa”.  The kernel? This seems so pessimistic that it is unlikely she can have meant it.

While she fails to prove her central definitional thesis and founders on the rocks of ethical theory,  Byrne succeeds wildly in filling her book with personally unearthed nuggets of ethical profligacy.

Byrne sets out her tent over eight chapters using a good smattering of history punctuated by case studies. She is going to be concerned with  the political culture that underpinned individual scandals. (Though she refers learnedly to myths dating as far back as the twelfth Century, frustratingly her English publishers seem to have restricted the original 200-year period she scrutinised in the university doctoral thesis on which the her book is based, to 92 years.)  Nevertheless in passing she notes that blatant bribery by the king’s agents  of Irish MPs led to the Act of Union and that the quid pro quo of a large political donation  by Cecil Rhodes to Parnell in 1888 was Parnell’s support for measures that would constitute a precedent to help him become Prime Minister of the Cape.

She writes that the legacy of the Union was a lack of trust in the political classes, evidenced in old Sinn Féin’s finding in 1919 that the Union had facilitated four artificial famines and 27 partial famines, for example. On the other hand there was a dangerous deference and ultimately a  conservatism generated by enthusiasm for the new State. Like much of Southern Europe the state was less important than the clan and was fair game to be exploited; politicians were underqualified; and there was little ideology.

She finds little corruption 1900-1930, a period of meritocratic governmental standard-setting, up to the 1950s when a crossroads was reached and mis-taken, leading to golden circles of aggrandised self-made men from the 1980s, badly-handled deregulation, privatisations and the tribunals which perhaps inevitably followed in the 1990s.

In the first half of the twentieth century she considers stifling over-regulation evoked frustration leading to occasional corruption: “the Great Southern Railways, Ward and Locke Tribunals of the 1940s were, in some measure, due to the narrow restrictions placed on domestic industry by the ‘Control of Manufacturing Acts 1932-4’”.

Her belief that “the ethical dimension of wrongdoing hinders objective analyses because any such scrutiny is suggestive of a judgmental and self-righteous undertone” opens her to laxity, almost to the point of justifying corrupt behaviour, particularly that of frustrated capitalists. She has the “hard-nosed generation of the 1960s” (“property developers, beef barons and financiers”) seeking to “cultivate network capital” and “thereby challenge assumed rights to economic power’ such as those of “incumbent influence which had historical and formal ties to the state and therein substantial advantages”.  She pushes all this to a horrible (il)logical conclusion: “because entry to the market was intrinsically unequal, alternative and innovative action such as  a policy of state capture, was regarded by some as a justified strategy”. Byrne should be making it clear at this point that any such justification was ethically nuts. Instead she goes on to  quote, with apparent approval, the view that  “the growth of corruption is closely linked with the growth of some of the activities of the government in the economy”. Certainly it provided opportunities but, unless we accept a moral vacuum, it does not explain it. She knows that.

Byrne does come down in her last chapter, indeed her last line, with the view that “Ireland’s loss of economic sovereignty in 2010… may yet motivate Irish political life to engage in state-building and reimagine [sic] Irish society with an emphasis on the moral duties of citizenship”. But, in part because the precipitous decrease in tolerance of hoorisms of all sort post-dated her cut-off date of 2010,  Byrne is not clear  on  why the political culture in the end has perhaps embraced the need to address corruption, as the energetic scraping of the   current government suggests it may finally have done (or at least finally be pretending to have done). My own view is that political acceptance by the corruptible big parties of corruption as anathema has been largely unenthusiastic. In recent times any acceptance reflected  primarily a desire at the upper reaches of Fianna Fail to deflect, at any cost, from immediate scrutiny of the affairs of several of its leaders.  The easiest bone to throw to the baying, if not particulary dynamic or imaginative, media was reform. Bertie Ahern didn’t even understand what ethics meant – famously telling an interviewer with pride “I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me”. For someone with that mentality instigating a tribunal was a better option than having to justify yourself to the media. That Fianna Fáil voters haven’t minded corruption has been suggested by Seán McGraw, quoted by Byrne, who considers that “Fianna Fáil loyalists may indirectly enjoy the benefits of influence-peddling or other questionable practices, as a result of engaging precisely these practices”.  Fine Gael hasn’t been that different.  Its ascetic Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, may take a more stringent stance but his party, in government, has yet to implement any of the recommendations of the Moriarty Report, its leader was until recently happy to cavort with both Michael Lowry and Denis O’Brien, it fails to face up to the legacy of Michael Lowry’s dubious if effective fundraising for it and it regards  Olivia Mitchell, for example, as a political rather than an ethical problem. A culture of impunity, legal and, as Denis O’Brien can testify moral and social, prevails.  Byrne never gets at this.

The book is unfortunately let down by ubiquitous typological errors and misuse of words – too many to list.  Many of these are ludicrous and someone probably needs to consider their position, professionally. There isn’t much excuse for “In procession of insider information”. Nor is it nice to print “gowth was more than double than that of our neighbours”. Or to write Denis O’ Brien, the “Corkyman” who in many ways is a “synonymous” public figure. Berkeley’s phrase was ‘esse est percipi’ not esse is percipi’. The bibliography confounds Rísteard Mulcahy for “Roistered” Mulcahy which would be quite different. In the hands of Manchester University Press a Tribunal can be a “ribunal”. Sometimes Byrne writes drivel: “Chapter 4 makes the case that discretionary political decisions, made under the cloak of economic protectionalism [sic], were replaced by the authorisation of planning permission in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s”. Discretionary political decisions have a far wider ambit than planning permissions and so one could never replace the other. She writes that “the Beef Tribunal of Inquiry was perhaps the most extraordinary political episode in modern Irish history”.  Sadly, it certainly was not. At one stage in this 2012 book she predicts the tribunals will end in 2011; elsewhere she says she is writing in 2010, another point when her editor seems to have deserted her. Indeed, that the book ends before publication of the Moriarty (though she refers to it desultorily) and Mahon reports, which could most elegantly have circumscribed it, suggests some sort of dysfunctional relationship with the publisher which may underpin some of the problems of the book.

Anyway we can forgive her that.  Byrne, on the page as in reality, is never other than lively; never less than fair and never more than concise.