ETHICS in politics should be a black and white affair -- either something is right or it's not. But in Ireland, 50 shades of grey are tolerated: a situation as inherently unhealthy as a novel you may have heard about recently which celebrates sadomasochism.
Speaking of pain and humiliation, once again citizens are subjected to standards of behaviour from within Dail Eireann which demean, chafe and try us. Step forward James Reilly, who has strayed into one of those grey areas.
When his name appeared in 'Stubbs Gazette' as a debt defaulter, anyone with raised eyebrows was assured by Dr Reilly's defenders that we were over-hasty in judging him, and under-experienced in the nuances of syndicate membership.
Fine Gael's deputy leader would use the nation's house on Kildare Street to put his own house in order: explaining why he ignored a High Court order, why his financial affairs have embarrassing kinks, and how he proposes to straighten them out.
And so last night, five entire minutes, five extravagant, profligate minutes, were set aside for this clarification in the interests of serving democracy.
In fact, five seconds would have been sufficient if the job was handled properly. There was only one short sentence the Health Minister needed to say: "I'm sorry -- I resign."
He never should have been given the health brief. If the Taoiseach believed he would be an asset to the Cabinet, he ought to have offered the doctor another ministry with no potential for conflict of interest.
His decision to appoint Dr Reilly shows dubious judgment. But I'm even more dismayed by his continued backing, in the face of a glaring conflict of interest which tests public trust. Loyalty to a colleague is to be esteemed, but loyalty to the State is more admirable again.
It is not exactly confidence-building to have a health minister with a stake in the private nursing home business, who is meanwhile pursuing a government policy of closing beds in public nursing homes.
I do not suggest that Dr Reilly has acted improperly. Indeed, he went to the Standards in Public Office Commission for guidance.
Before taking up office, he transferred his interest in the asset to a blind trust, effectively ceding control over it. He has no input in deciding when it can be sold or remortgaged, either to realise a profit or crystallise a loss.
But he ought to have done that anyway, as a member of an administration furthering the private healthcare agenda. More was needed from a health minister. The principle of public service is at war with the prospect of private gain, in the shape of that nursing home business.
In his statement to the Dail, he said he had been trying to sell his 9pc stake in the nursing for the past 16 months but had been unable to do so. This means that, in time, perhaps when he leaves politics, he can retrieve his asset and benefit from the decisions he was party to making as a minister.
By retaining personal investments in the lucrative private nursing home sector, he damages the integrity of the decision-making process.
It would have been cleaner for Dr Reilly to sell his interest, even if he lost out financially. Instead, public faith in democracy has been sacrificed.
It strikes me as odd that Dr Reilly was not required to do this by the Standards in Public Office Commission. The body holds the view that divesting himself of any control over his share in the nursing home business was sufficient to protect ethics.
But this poses a question over whether those guidelines are adequate. After all, the conflict of interest remains. Job botched.
Those entrusted with high office ought to be above suspicion. This must be a given. No fudging, no extenuating circumstances.
Public faith has been breached, however. The difficulty is not a debt defaulter health minister -- that's a red herring -- but one perceived to have a conflict of interest.
Incidentally, the nursing home is not the only asset of Dr Reilly's which may give rise to a potential conflict of interest. It is also possible he retains a beneficial interest in his GP's practice in Lusk, Co Dublin. And what are we to make of another investment, an abandoned multi-million euro health development in his constituency? The lack of clarity surrounding these issues gives cause for concern.
No doubt the irregularity regarding his stake in the Carrick-on-Suir nursing home under the spotlight will be sorted out quickly He is well-paid, and holds a considerable assortment of assets, all declared in compliance with the law.
Incidentally, in noting his investment portfolio, I should point out that it's useful to have people from all walks of life in the Oireachtas, including those with business experience. Career politicians are no great shakes.
And we must accept that business people encounter difficulties occasionally -- it's how they deal with them that counts. But while this debt default can be put right, there is no easy fix for his conflict of interest. That can't be clarified away, or simplified away, and no explanation to the Dail -- even one that might run to a heady 10 or 15 minutes -- can sweeten it.
The crux of the matter is the value we place on integrity. Dr Reilly's business affairs may soon be in order, but the ethics of keeping him in Hawkins House are not so handy to patch up. He is charged with serving the people, and the best way to do that now would be to play his part in promoting higher standards in public office.
Or is the public supposed to be the only resigned element here -- resigned to tolerating an inadequate code from the body, the Standards in Public Office Commission, charged with regulating members' interests?
Damage to the Coalition is being caused. The Taoiseach is left looking "preposterous" -- his dismissal of the conflict of interest charge -- as he props up Dr Reilly in the face of justified questions from Gerry Adams and Micheal Martin, among others.
As for Labour, it needs to speak out sharpish, and not in a supporting role, or another slice of its reputation will wind up on the collateral damage heap.
Pat Rabbitte expressed his conviction, on RTE's 'Morning Ireland' yesterday, that his Cabinet colleague's statement to the Dail would shine a light on this matter which has been troubling us.
But the only clarification the public needs is the date of Dr Reilly's resignation -- "with immediate effect" has a healthy ring to it.