Saturday 31 January 2015

The tribunal that was over in just two hours

Long, costly and no one goes to jail at the end. That, pretty much, is the public perception of tribunals of inquiry in the Irish system.

But it wasn't always so. Ireland has had short (and cheap) inquiries in the past. In the early days of the State, a year was a long time to wait for a tribunal report, and one sat for just two hours.

In a neglected corner of her recent book Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010 (Manchester University Press), academic Elaine Byrne shines a welcome light on those early inquiries.

Between 1920 and 1930, there was an obsession with probity (ministers who were forced to sleep in their offices because of gunfire outside were asked to reimburse the £4 9s 6d it cost for their meals), but standards fell in successive years.

Here are four inquiries which describe the often uneasy relationship between the Irish and the letter of the law:

The strange case of the Wicklow gold prospectors (1935)

The Irish economy in 1935 was strictly controlled and regulated, with government licences, leases, export quotas and permits required for all manner of commercial activity. Seán Lemass, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, was the dominant economic figure.

Lemass granted a mining licence to Senator Michael Comyn and TD Bob Briscoe (both Fianna Fáil) covering 982 acres of land in Co Wicklow. He subsequently issued another licence for 2,000 acres nearby.

Comyn and Briscoe sub-let their lease to a UK mining company in return for £12,000 worth of shares and royalties on any gold extracted. The UK company planned to raise money on the stock market to fund its operations -- a measure still seen as shady in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Patrick McGilligan of Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael) was Lemass's great tormentor. He had preceded him at Industry and Commerce and suspected that Lemass was favouring party colleagues. When he said as much in the Dáil, Lemass responded by instituting an inquiry.

The minutes of the inquiry are instructive. Lemass strongly believed that public representatives should be treated precisely the same as any other citizen. The notions of influence, the brokering of power, of implicit corruption, were foreign at that time.

The inquiry cleared Lemass of any wrongdoing, mostly on the basis that he did not benefit financially from the transactions.

The mysterious case of the doctor and the hairy bacon (1946)

Dr Francis Ward was a prominent Fianna Fáil politician in Monaghan, and was widely tipped as the next Minister for Health in 1946.

Among these were that (i) Ward had sacked McCarvill's son from his meat factory and replaced him with his own son; (ii) Ward had pocketed £12,000 from the company accounts; (iii) Ward was still being paid as a local doctor even though he had been replaced by a locum; and (iv) Ward used public money to erect a Fianna Fáil hall on his own land.

De Valera established a tribunal of inquiry, which sat for just nine days, and exonerated Ward of the worst of the charges. It did find that Ward had evaded income tax, which prompted his immediate resignation. He became the first politician in the history of the State to resign over alleged personal impropriety.

The Dáil wrestled with the idea of introducing rules governing the private commercial activities of TDs. Oliver J Flanagan's view was that "the criminal law, the Ten Commandments and the ordinary principles of decency and good conduct" were sufficient.

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