Reading a Pulitzer-winning New York biography over the summer it was difficult not to think of Pat Hickey and his control of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). Hickey’s ego and ability to run rings around ministers is reminiscent, on a much smaller scale, of the way Robert Moses domineered in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s. Moses’ career is brilliantly expounded in Robert Caro’s outstanding, if at 1336 pages remarkably long, biography, ‘The Power Broker’.
Moses unsuccessfully stood for New York State governor in 1934. But never achieving elected office didn’t stop him from becoming the most powerful man in New York. He rebuilt much of the city, in some ways positively, though he had little regard for the poor, and none for blacks. He created more public parks and recreational areas for New Yorkers, but in almost half a century he also committed the state to the car, building more roads, and starving public transport of investment, with predictable results.
His story is one of remarkable power ostensibly based on the control of innocuous-sounding public authorities. His superior knowledge of rules, rules he often drafted himself, gave him control of these authorities. He collected information on every potential collaborator, who were, of course, also potential enemies.
But most of all Moses organised the corruption of the city’s public works programmes. He ensured that anyone with any power had an interest in Moses’ success. He was able to defeat powerful enemies this way. And his successes made him powerful friends.
In this perspective, the OCI ticketing scandal is pretty small beer. It might be a sign of how healthy our democracy is that we’re getting so exercised by it. More likely is that it happened in August and so, other than an underwhelming Irish performance at the Olympics, the media had little else to report.
But it has become a scandal, and scandals create a vacuum that must be filled by the outrage of the overwrought. ‘Shell shocked’ ministers promised action. If Joe Duffy is currently pandering to the self-appointed morally superior, his interlocutors are sure to have been aghast. It will have provided proof for them, not that any was needed, that ‘they’re all the same’.
And so to fill the vacuum, Shane Ross rushed in with an ‘independent’ inquiry. As a non-statutory inquiry it will depend on the goodwill of those it’s seeking to investigate. If there is wrongdoing, it is unlikely to find anything other than a lack of co-operation. It would be very hard for Pat Hickey to co-operate, should he want to, while under threat from the Brazilian criminal system. It does mean, however, that the OCI can’t sweep the matter away, which presumably it would prefer to do.
But above all the purpose of the inquiry is to be seen to do something. Hopefully judge Carroll Moran will have the sense to see that and not drag it out longer than is needed.
The real lessons are entirely predictable. When we look at the scandals that have emerged in Irish state-dependent organisations recently, a common thread is evident. The problems in Console, Rehab, the Central Remedial Clinic and the OCI – as well as Irish Nationwide, whether a result of corruption or mis-management, all happened in organisations that became dominated by one man or woman.
They could get away it for so long because the dominant player controlled money, information and personnel and was dependent on absentee directors who showed little interest or taste in propriety. They went along usually because of the generous rewards associated with the roles. Sonia O’Sullivan’s admission that anything she knew about the OCI scandal she knew from the media shows a surprising lack of interest, given her position on its board. But badly managed organisations depend on the torpidity of others.
The Irish scandals dwarf in comparison to Moses’ operation, but if we are serious about avoiding the excessive rewards and mismanagement of important Irish institutions, we need to think about regulation certainly, but even more about how directors operate and the terms of their leadership.
Because many were overpaid we assume that no pay is the answer. This, it is thought, ensures that only the honest and genuinely interested will serve. But it means they may take it less seriously, and they may feel entitled to pursue other ways to get rewards. Moses made a big deal of the fact that he served in his many public jobs (except as New York City Parks Commissioner) without compensation, but he lived royally and enriched those around him in public and private life who aided him. Some pay is reasonable and desirable.
Unless directors are made personally responsible for the activities of their organisations these scandals will continue. And if they are dominated by egotistical individuals, then scandal is almost a certainty.
By Eoin O’Malley