Thursday 29 September 2016

How quickly we forget the low standards we permit in high places

Gerard O'Regan

Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30

Charlie Haughey at his home Abbeville
Charlie Haughey at his home Abbeville

What's in it for me? This clarion call for small-town self-interest and unrestrained greed tugs us back over the years. But is it not also a comment that gives vent to something at the core of our political life, which in our heart of hearts we know only too well?

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There has been much mock outrage following the RTÉ exposé into less than ideal behaviour by some of our local councillors. It's really been a case of big-time shock horror in some quarters. But the Dublin 4 set surely lost the run of themselves competing to express their outrage at such grubby behaviour.

God bless their innocence. Do they not realise the tale of Irish politicians on the make seems nearly as old as time itself?

That's really what the RTÉ probe reminded us of. Lots of things change - but the constancy of human nature will endure.

And how easily we forget.

It's not all that long ago when Charles J Haughey (inset below) was working the system, year after year after year, hustling for what one of the councillors on the 'RTÉ Investigates' programme so graphically described as "loads of money".

There was much suspicion back then that the Kinsealy mansion, the horses, the private island, the lavish wine cellar, the fine dining in posh restaurants and the Charvet shirts, were all paid for by ill-gotten gains. But it seemed he had to disport himself as a kind of regal Irish chieftain, whose taste for grandiose living should be paid for by a kind of grateful peasantry.

As the endgame came into play he insisted on a valedictory goodbye in the Dail, quoting Othello. He glibly assured us he "had done the State some service". In time he would get a State funeral - and the praise of a goodly number of his peers, who argued that although his hand may long have been in the till, he really wasn't such a bad guy after all.

But the real tragedy was how so many of his peers, seeing how easy it was for Haughey to slice off such a generous part of the action for himself, decided they would also use public office to swell their bank accounts. The subsequent roll call of disgrace is well-known. The excuses offered by those who chased the filthy lucre have been as imaginative as some of the sordid schemes which enriched them behind closed doors. Some, of course, were just lucky, having taken a punt on the horses.

And what about those days, when Dublin city councillors would be handed the proverbial brown envelope stacked with cash in well-known hostelries. All they had to do was vote in favour of some risqué rezoning or planning proposition. In time, because so many politicians were caught lining their pockets, we got into a bit of a tizzy about the whole thing, and in fairness some sound anti-corruption legislation was introduced.

But it's far from enough. You don't change such old habits overnight. The adage that "one hand washes the other'' is rooted in the way we do politics. Is that not what our so-called clientelism is all about? We go to a local politician to stroke a medical card, or to nudge forward planning permission for a house extension, even though the rules clearly state both are off limits. But it's all explained away as a public representative "making representations" on behalf of a constituent.

Therefore, it's no wonder that when big dollops of cash are floating around, a particular councillor, TD, or government minister would like to get their reward for bending the system. The temptation is often overwhelming, and the opportunities for some form of bribe are almost endless. In Italian godfather style - those requesting the favour and those granting it - both can make very good money if the project is big enough.

All countries, ranging from democracies to dictatorships, have their quota of corruption, and in the world league of political sleaze, we seem to rank somewhere in the middle. But the value of such tables recounting dirty deeds are limited - they can only operate on the basis of known wrongdoing. And that's the key message to be taken from the RTE investigation: we simply don't know how many other of our politicians out there are on the make.

Some of the comments on the programme were undoubtedly stomach-churning - for those with a more starry eyed view of the people we trust to do right by us. But let us also acknowledge that on countless occasions we have re-elected dodgy politicians. All too often an equally self-seeking voter justifies everything on the grounds a particular councillor or TD is "a great man for the constituency''.

Therefore, this latest reminder of what some of our public representatives get up to, and why they really should be ashamed of themselves, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. The "what's in it for me'' chant is just a reminder of how they see their role in public life.

So come election time remember - more often than not, we get the politicians we deserve.

Irish Independent

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