Sunday 26 October 2014

We face choice between banana republic or properly run democracy

Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30

Leo Varadkar has distinguished himself by refusing to keep quiet. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar has distinguished himself by refusing to keep quiet. Photo: Tom Burke
Michael Noonan, as Fine Gael minister for justice in 1983, disclosed the illegal telephone tapping that had occurred under the previous Fianna Fail administration
Michael Noonan, as Fine Gael minister for justice in 1983, disclosed the illegal telephone tapping that had occurred under the previous Fianna Fail administration

Sir Robert Peel said there was no appetite for the truth in Ireland. Decades, even centuries, have rolled by since he made that remark. Do the sad facts of the 19th Century remain the same in the 21st?

Our reaction to the latest flood of sensations – amounting, in total, in its details and its implications, to one of the worst scandals in our history – will tell a tale.

As in every such case, we have a choice. We can relapse into our banana republic mode of thought. Or we can regard it as a glorious opportunity to clean up our stumbling administration and society and turn ourselves into a decent, properly run democracy.

Unfortunately, the precedents are bleak. Let us glance at two of them.

Michael Noonan, as Fine Gael minister for justice in 1983, disclosed the illegal telephone tapping that had occurred under the previous Fianna Fail administration. He said he had thereby given Fianna Fail the chance to get rid of Charles J Haughey.

But Haughey escaped, and stayed on as party leader for many years. Fianna Fail spurned the opportunity to reform itself. Do you suppose it will ever grasp it? I don't.

In 2002 the Morris Tribunal was set up to inquire into Garda malpractice in Donegal. It sat until 2008, having produced several reports which told astounding stories of illegal activities, hounding of innocent persons and a collapse of morale among gardai who had lost all respect for their superior officers.

The chairman, Mr Justice Morris, summed it up by declaring that the Donegal division was "losing the character of a disciplined force".

He made several proposals for reform. While the tribunal was still sitting, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) was established.

Obviously a major advance in accountability. Who would have thought that within a few years the GSOC would find itself innocently embroiled in a controversy that threatened its authority, perhaps its future?

That controversy was the key which opened the proverbial can of worms. Now we can see, perhaps more clearly than ever before, the contrast between proper procedures in administration (including transparency) and the traditional cronyism, secrecy and rejection of accountability.

We can also see the familiar pattern whereby some players perform with credit, some with little or none.

Few indeed are the heroes. They include the whistleblowers and Leo Varadkar. Varadkar has distinguished himself by refusing to keep quiet and telling the truth, quietly but emphatically.

Alan Shatter has come through the mill battered, and the effects could extend much farther than any personal damage.

He still has the capacity to go down in history as a great reforming minister.

But to succeed, he needs strong support and confidence, in the first instance from his own party. Even within the Cabinet, some dislike his reforms.

Can he push them through in his present weakened position?

And what of his friend, the Taoiseach, who is said to admire his intellect and eloquence so much?

Enda Kenny is decent and hard-working. But he seems to think that the "democratic revolution" was accomplished at one stroke in 2011. It was not. Revolutions will fade if not built upon.

He must know, because we all know, what has to happen next.

We must have an inquiry, or series of inquiries. The process must be rigorous. It must also be rapid. We cannot afford any more Mahon or Moriarty tribunals. They gave us vast quantities of information, but no results. This time, we must establish the truth quickly.

More important, the government must act on it quickly – and with determination.

It must acknowledge, especially to itself, that we are not looking at little blips or forgivable mistakes. We are looking at the future, and the nature, of the independent Irish State.

But even if Enda Kenny and his helpers have the intelligence and the imagination to attempt what the country needs, how can they prevail against the present background?

IT would be tedious to list all the misguided policies and all the political and economic uncertainties. Enough to point out that the coalition's term has only two years to run and that within a year at most all the government's energies – such as they are – will be directed to the general election.

Useless to look to Labour, or the opposition parties, for any sort of salvation. Perhaps we should look outside the political system altogether: to the educationalists, environmentalists, the media, industry, research, volunteering, the unions – in short, to civil society, packed with people who seek better things.

After all, Irish people have succeeded in every branch of endeavour known to humankind. Except when it comes to governing ourselves.

Irish Independent

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