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On Mahon and Irish corruption

[Editorial, April, 2012]
As Mahon finally grinds to a somewhat disappointing report, it is time to recognise that corruption, even more than its cousin greed, did for Ireland in our time. 

Enda Kenny got into trouble by over-generalising on the sensitive issue of just who went mad with greed and borrowing during our distant boom, but he might just as well have gone the whole way and questioned which of us dabbled in corruption too.

Corruption, illegal and legal, has been endemic in banking, in the awarding of public contracts, in planning, in the exploitation of resources and the environment, in the unblinking repayment of unsecured bondholders and ultimately in the obscene maldistribution of wealth.
Ireland is regarded as suffering particularly high levels of ‘legal corruption’ – perhaps as many (not you dear reader or I, of course) need to look into their souls to see if they have been party to corruption as need to see if they are party to greed.
While no laws may be broken, ‘strokes’ and ‘cute hoorism’ such as nepotism, patronage, job-
bery, parochialism, political favours and political donations influence political decisions and policy to the detriment of the common good, disproportionately in this country. Influence-selling has yet to be completely outlawed, while political funding remains open to abuse through loose thresholds on political donations and weak disclosure criteria for political parties. Though legislation is proposed, political lobbying is entirely unregulated and political parties are not required to publish audited accounts.
Disgrace bears little consequence in this society. Ben Dunne still has a weekly column in the Irish Sun, although Moriarty found him corrupt and his principal defence seems to be that he had psychiatric difficulties. Bertie Ahern batted for the Star from behind the contents of a refrigerator and Celia Larkin pontificates on the issues of the day in the Sunday Independent. No-one cares what Moriarty said about civil servants. Denis O’Brien still dominates our Global Economic Forums, the Clinton Diaspora Summit and the horrible Ireland Inc St Patrick’s Day NYSE bell-ringing.
Whatever about the benighted Fianna Fáil, our current main ruling party raised, with corrupt Minister Michael Lowry’s involvement, €1.3 million to clear its debts between 1991 and 1994 and, despite that and an army of dodgy rezoning councillors, most of whom were recognised in the Mahon Report, it rose to political ascendancy last year as if it were a paragon of virtue. There was, and is, no sign of criminal proceedings
for corruption against Haughey, Burke, Lowry, O’Brien, the Bailey Brothers or Liam Lawlor. Michael Lowry, Ray Burke, Ivor Callely, George Redmond, Liam Cosgrave Jnr, Frank Dunlop – that galaxy of unworthiness – all retain their government pensions. Government promises to address Mahon recommendations and seek prosecutions are as tenuous as the forgotten pledges it gave after Moriarty.
Village likes to look at human progress in terms of four spheres that comprise human activity – economic, social, environmental and cultural. On probably all, certainly on three, we live in a corrupt society, morally and often legally.
Economically, Ireland Inc (that well-worn if emasculated phrase!) turns out to believe in bailing out people who were paid excessively for taking risks and then avoided responsibility when the risks went wrong. This reveals as insincere the very premise of the capitalism it purported to believe in. In this respect if you have to do capitalism, it is better to do it the US way with competition and swift criminal penalties for dishonesty.
In Ireland, we failed to regulate, even to maintain functioning capitalism, let alone to facilitate an equal and sustainable society. And from the
Beef Tribunal to the Moriarty Tribunal to the Planning Tribunal and various insipid banking inquiries as well as in cases involving insider trading, public tendering and the whole planning process, it is clear that there is widespread red- toothed corruption tainting important sectors of our economy and reaching right to the top; as well as ubiquitous ‘trading in influence’.
During the boom all the main parties promoted or went along with a tax-reducing, officiary-over- remunerating agenda and the now-ruling parties supported insane stamp-duty reductions. If not corrupt this was at least unfair and reckless. The biggest recent instances of economic corruption are repaying largely foreign plutocrats with their unsecured bonds and Nama‘s decision in most cases to retrieve not the original value of loans, but the haircut price it paid, so losing the potential upside benefit to the taxpayer; and revealing it as sustaining burnt-out speculators when we were expressly promised it would not. Predictably too, NAMA pays some of them up to €200,000 a year to run their troubled companies.
Socially, budgetary policy favours expenditure cuts which affect the poorest most and taxation policy favours the rich. Even during the boom we had very low public expenditure relative to income, leading to unnecessarily poor public services and quality of life. During the boom there were famously more Irish golf courses than playgrounds (the Great Recession will have taken care of more of the former than the latter). and there is a certain corruption in the structuring of society to suit the rich and make equality between people, who are equal moral agents, impossible. The CSO recently showed that the average income of those in the top 20 per cent of the population was 51⁄2 times higher than the average of those in the poor- est 20 per cent. a year earlier it had been just 4.3 times higher. The Gini coefficient which measures income inequality more comprehensively was .34 in 2010, a disimprovement from .299 in 2009 (when Sweden’s, for example, was .23). much other corruption derives from this social inequality. and as for the left campaigning against the idea of property taxes, this magazine despairs.
Environmentally, during the boom we had the highest resource-use per capita in the eU and the second-highest green- house gas emissions in the EU after
Luxembourg. Though emissions have dropped from 18 to 14 tonnes per capita this is due to the economic fiasco not good administration. Ireland has played the fullest role in international climate crimes.
Our water quality should be excellent due to demography and geography. In fact e coli levels in Ireland are seven times those of Northern Ireland and 28 times those of england and Wales (and our chosen antidote of chlorination now offers carcinogenic Thms in the drinking water of an extraordinary – and unknowing – 600,000
citizens). yet septic-tank inspections, mandated by the eU were recently described by protesters from Galway West, as “an injustice to rural people . . . an insult”. and environment minister, Phil Hogan, recently boasted that the new septic tank inspection regime would cover only ten per cent of houses near rivers and lakes. The debate on septic tanks proceeds on the basis that there is no value to the public in clean water. It is left to the eU to see the policy point; and the public interest.
We never had the appetite for good planning. The National Spatial Strategy was deliberately made toothless. and local authorities ignore it – as well as their own local plans, allowing Dublin for example to sprawl into surrounding counties; while cities and towns outside Greater Dublin languish. around 50% of the State’s housing output is built in the least sustainable form – one-off. Since 2001, 170,000 new one-off houses have been permitted in Ireland. Despite this there is a conspiracy to make out that the national spatial problem is the difficulty of obtaining permissions for one-off houses.
We have failed to learn the lessons of the planning Tribunal which have been evident for a decade and a half. While codes of conduct and legislation aimed at curbing corruption are in place for public representatives and officials, there appears to be little understanding and repeated transgression of the codes at national and local level.
politicians have not learnt the clear lesson that Development and other plans need to be assessed quasi-judicially, at the time of creation, for compliance with the National Spatial Strategy. Mahon recommends this only for decisions that counter
managements’ advice. In local government, the risk of fraud and corruption is particularly acute, heightened by the lack of adequate safeguards not just against planning corruption, but against false accounting, misuse of resources, influence-selling and fraud also.
Culturally, our contemporary artists have not held a mirror to our corrupt society. Too few of them have made targets of our ruling elite, too many of them seek the company of the wealthy and the corrupt. Ireland is the capital of the boy band and eurotrash. Colm Tóibín’s celebration of Michael Fingleton, Bono’s exaltation of capitalism and cultivation of Blair, Bush and Ahern, Seamus Heaney’s attendance at a Denis O’Brien dinner find no parallels in the worlds of Joyce, Beckett or Yeats. Aosdána is the smuggest colloquium in cultural history. Jedward.
Transparency International’s Corruption perceptions Index 2011 shows that Ireland’s ranking has fallen recently and it now compares poorly to other northern European nations. Ireland ranks 19 out of 183 countries with a score of 7.5 out of ten, down from 8 in 2010. The cul- ture of this country facilitates influence-selling and is indulgent of corruption, even in high places. That the national edifice should have collapsed was inevitable.
It is this infection mixed with a largely unadul- terated celebration of greed, rather than our mere, derivative, fiscal come-uppance and debt, that will keep this country down for a generation. Greed and Corruption are each rooted in base deference to money and self, rather than the public interest.
Without a change in culture we are doomed.