Friday 28 November 2014

Fifteen years ago we witnessed a miracle — an inquiry that worked

But the 'democratic revolution' of Enda Kenny has been crushed by tribalism

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

Enda Kenny peers through an artificial fire, in an image captured by award-winning photographer Julian Behal
Enda Kenny peers through an artificial fire, in an image captured by award-winning photographer Julian Behal

It may seem strange but when it came to governance Irish politics once had its moment of perfection.

It occurred just before Christmas in 1999 when the chairman of the Dail Public Accounts Committee said that after 26 days of public sittings, its inquiry into allegations of tax evasion in the banking sector had concluded, and a report would follow shortly.

It represents some journey from there to the current scenario where a Coalition with a record majority, approaching its third year in office, has not had the gumption to even set up a banking inquiry.

We shall return to that, but, it is first important to note such a debacle would have seemed to be impossible in 1999 where the Dirt Inquiry appeared to be a relatively normal portent of things to come rather than a little miracle.

Ireland, back then had also grumbled its way through two reforming governments involving Labour and Fianna Fail and then the Rainbow.

They had been replaced by a vigorous tax-cutting FF/Progressive Democrats coalition under a young Taoiseach who, despite having a bit of the dandruff of the Haughey era speckled over his political collar, appeared to represent a modern way of doing things.

This new way where Ireland would be like normal countries was epitomised by a peace process which had begun to finally cleanse the toxins from the snake's bite of paramilitary sectarianism.

Indeed for a time it even appeared that the spooks and spectres of the Haughey era were being exorcised by two new tribunals, the Moriarty and planning and payments tribunals, which had the full confidence of the public.

In that strange place of bliss, Ireland was a mature democracy to such an extent there was a functioning government and an effective opposition.

We know now that confidence was a delusion for the rot had begun and all that was left was for it to accelerate.

Even after three years of our 'democratic revolution' Ireland is not, in terms of the quality of our governance, within touching distance of that time of plenty.

As we noted earlier this failure is epitomised by the 'state o' chassis' our banking inquiry has been reduced to.

So far the pilgrim's progress of that particular process has consisted of infighting between Dail committees to hold the invisible inquiry and a defeated referendum on the issue of Dail inquiries

The most unfortunate aspect of that particular referendum was not so much the defeat as the absolute justification of the result provided by the Taoiseach's subsequent crass remark that the independent inquiry would investigate acts of "collusion'' between FF and banks.

In one sentence Mr Kenny entirely justified the electorate's suspicions about the bona fides of politicians getting more powers to indulge in witch-hunts against themselves and, more worryingly still, our good selves.

It all represents some change from 2011 where the inauguration of the Coalition resembled the political version of Kumbaya as the Irish citizens were told to put on our brightest clothes to celebrate their liberation from the yoke of Fianna Fail.

Now Mr Kenny's infamous 'democratic revolution' comment is used with the sort of smirk, wink and nod that indicates there has been no change from the age of Bertie Ahern where language always meant the opposite to what it appeared to mean.

As the democratic revolution collapses in upon itself the natural response of the citizenry is to claim it has always been this way and leave the thing at that.

But, the Ireland that existed in 1999 proves that it has not always been this way.

Instead those who govern us have failed to protect the people.

Or to put it more accurately that political boardroom known as the Cabinet has flunked this task, for within our political dispensation no one outside of the Cabinet has the power to even blow seeds off a dandelion.

In fairness to the current Coalition they can claim that when it comes to how we are governed they inherited a palace of rot.

In retrospect Bertie created a state that was so venal sometimes it almost appeared that cronyism and back-scratching had been essentially nationalised.

Indeed during this time of plenty our elites were trousering such vast levels of emoluments, the bad old days of Ray 'Rambo' Burke trousering the odd 30 grand bung looked like a pauper's existence.

The most visible example of this process was the evolution of social partnership from a vehicle of national recovery into what Richard Bruton, who is very quiet these days, once called a 'Ceausescu-style' edifice of political patronage.

The black death of social partnership was just a thinner image of the damage wrought by the laissez-faire, laissez-passer light-touch regulation school of governance our bankers, builders and vested interests enjoyed during the Ahern era.

A Cabinet that was too busy applauding itself for thought, was utterly ineffectual as Ireland's economy and its system of governance was hollowed out from within to such an extent we acquired the reputation of being 'the Wild West' of capitalism.

The consequences though were not merely fiscal for grotesque developments such as Priory Hall were the catalyst for the suicide of our citizens.

Astonishingly though, when it comes to change, the dominant initiative this administration has taken in a country, whose future was fatally wounded by the refusal of government to embrace the concept of transparency, has consisted of the even more secretive Economic Management Council system.

These developments are all the more surprising given that back in 2011 Mr Kenny knew that the secretive and partisan ways of governance had "damaged us not alone financially, but emotionally, psychologically and spiritually".

This means it is all the more unfortunate that when it comes to our ever curiouser and curiouser Coalition the old ways of politics have made quite the comeback.

Even Bertie in his heyday would, for example, have blushed at the situation where the Minister for Justice is involved in setting the terms of reference of any inquiry into matters where he played no small role himself.

Whatever about bankers, Messrs Kenny and Gilmore are a little keener to bash the bishops these days.

The palsied state of a discredited church means, however, that the Taoiseach's Vatican rodomontade bears a closer resemblance to the scene in Father Ted, where Father Dougal delivers a sneaky kick to two priests fighting on the ground and then hastily exits, than the crusade it was initially portrayed to be.

The 'democratic revolution' meanwhile is now in such a heap Micheal Martin can credibly note that no garda whistleblower in his right mind would now speak out.

One measure of the changed nature of the times is that Mr Shatter, despite this development, is as safe as any house that was constructed before the building boom.

In Opposition Mr Kenny was an eloquent critic of the tribal politics of party before country, but, Mr Shatter's status as one of the few who, with Jim Reilly, Cute Old Phil and Enda himself held the Alamo in 2010, and blazed away at the Bruton gang, means he is one of the special ones.

As the citizens gaze sullenly at a self-congratulatory government where position and power is dictated by loyalty to the parish, the constituency, the party, your political friends and the 'Dear Leader', increasingly Cromwell's famous dismissal of the Rump Parliament with the warning of "Go in the name of God go for all the good you have been doing", appears to be an apt summary of where we are.

Hopefully when it comes to our rump their reformist instincts may be pricked by our gathering elections. The evidence, though, of King Enda's first thousand days suggests it's a fairly long shot.

Sunday Independent

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