Monday 24 October 2016

Noble Joe signs off with an alternative banks report

Shane Ross

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

WARHORSE: TD Joe Higgins explaining his decision not to sign off on the Banking Inquiry report. Photo: Sam Boal /
WARHORSE: TD Joe Higgins explaining his decision not to sign off on the Banking Inquiry report. Photo: Sam Boal /

There were two banking reports floating around Leinster House last week. One was written by the Irish establishment, the other by an incorrigible rebel.

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The first, an expensive production with a glossy cover, was dull as ditch water inside. The second was precariously pinned together on the outside, but a controversial read written by one of only two dissenting voices on the inquiry team, Deputy Joe Higgins. Dump the official version.

Last Thursday, Higgins made his final speech in Dail Eireann. Typically, he did not flag it as such. He modestly took the opportunity to explain why he had jumped ship from the emptiest vessel ever launched in Leinster House.

Just before Joe spoke, another eloquent parliamentarian had said goodbye with an almighty swipe at some of his opponents.

Pat Rabbitte , former leader of the Labour Party - so derided by Higgins - allowed himself the luxury of a few rhetorical flourishes as he left the Chamber for the final time. He was clapped by his own party colleagues. Joe simply got on with the business, finished his 10-minute speech, picked up his papers and left.

The speech was vintage Higgins. When I entered the chamber, he was making the mother of all attacks on Independent News & Media. He was in full flight, fingering the media for fuelling the property boom. His Banking Inquiry report had related how this newspaper group had sponsored the Irish Property Awards every year until 2008. Worse still, the 2004 awards ceremony had been portrayed in its pages as "a glittering showcase of the cream of Ireland's property and development industries ... attended by a record 1,000 property professionals with several hundred disappointed".

In his Dail speech, he happily regaled us with the tale of how "in 2007 the 'Irish property deal of the year' award had gone to the Irish Glass Bottle site, which ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of euro while five of the seven award-winning developers were among the top 10 debtors to Anglo."

Higgins socked it to us, insisting that the Property Awards reflected "INM's generally obsequious coverage of developers, who were celebrated as gods with the Midas touch …"

Higgins displays political courage that other politicians would shun as suicidal.

When I phoned Higgins on Thursday night to congratulate him on his speech, he suggested that I would not want to print such criticism in this newspaper. Nor to mention that the Irish Times was actually "a player" in the property market by virtue of buying a website - - for €40m in 2006. Both newspaper groups, he maintained, had a strong vested interest in seeing the property market rocket.

Not for the first time in two decades of Higgins in the Dail, the old Trotskyite warhorse was right. And not for the first time in his life, Higgins was on his own. No other politician in Dail Eireann has the bottle to confront the media full frontal and excoriate them for a role in the biggest disaster ever to hit this state. Such a manoeuvre will not feature in Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe's putative 'Guide to the path to the top in politics.'

It is well known that it was Higgins who insisted that the inquiry should summon the media as witnesses to account for their behaviour during the property boom. His colleagues on the inquiry were supposed to have felt doubts about questioning such powerful players. Higgins had a field day, courting political suicide as he interrogated newspaper editors and business commentators.

So it was no surprise that Higgins issued his own Banking Inquiry report. His reason for doing so was not grandstanding, nor the usual political hunger for attention. It was pure conviction. Higgins felt the foundations of the official report were flawed. He was on the money.

His explanation is consistent with his creed. He insists that the inquiry never asked the fundamental question: "why was a small cabal of bankers, bondholders and developers allowed to wield massive economic power in pursuit of private, corporate profit and in the process inflict incalculable economic and social destruction on society?" You do not need to be a Trot to agree with that, but you need bottle to ask it.

Higgins's report highlights how ordinary citizens were galled at how utterly immune the bankers and others were to any legal sanction because the whole system "had been legally rigged in their interests".

Nor does it take a hard Leftie to share this view, but nothing so citizen-friendly would ever have appeared in the tepid official version.

Joe Higgins will not be easily replaced. No other TD has evoked such respect as a conviction politician. Higgins's rhetoric may be out of tune with the modern world but his long record of uncompromising integrity is unparalleled.

Higgins lives the ideology. He gives half his Dail salary to the Socialist Party and other causes. He spent a month in prison for his beliefs after the anti-bin-tax campaign in 2003.

He does not easily mingle with other TDs, preferring the company of those who share his mission.

He is a workaholic, dedicated to the socialist cause. While he is totally unclubbable, he is meticulously polite and has displayed a sense of humour that has regularly left the Dail in stitches.

He has a great line in ridicule and irony. He deeply detests the soft Left, as he sees them as traitors to the socialist cause. His eyes often twinkle mischievously as he gauges reactions to his more provocative statements, yet he is respected by nearly every TD.

Last week a member of the Banking Inquiry told me that they had all built up a genuine liking for the socialist TD, despite their differences. "Joe is a very, very serious politician," he muttered - enviously.

Higgins has no respect for high office or its holders. When Mary McAleese rang to tell him that she was going to seek a second term, he responded to her Excellency that her office was "superfluous" and should be abolished. The President is reported to have been stunned by his reaction.

He is famous for his Dail jousts, causing convulsions when he told Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that his Dail answers were "like playing handball with a haystack". His famous speech about "Ansbacher Man", the tax evaders who walked away scot-free, was a classic.

So we are probably bidding goodbye to the finest parliamentarian of the last decade. Politics does not make people of Higgins's mettle any more.

Joe's dedication to his principles has even marked his departure. Higgins did not need to step down, as he would undoubtedly have been re-elected in his Dublin West stronghold.

But he genuinely wanted to make way for another generation of socialism. Fellow socialist Ruth Coppinger shares his home patch due to her by-election victory. Consequently, there is only room for one of them in a battle that includes Leo Varadkar and Joan Burton. So Higgins has selflessly stood aside to be her director of elections.

He insists that he will still be active but acknowledges the stress of the political life. And in a rare concession to his opponents, he admits that "politics is a dog's life, even for right-wing TDs."

His exit is a truly noble gesture. Joe Higgins, author of the alternative Banking Inquiry report, is living proof that nobility is not confined to aristocrats.

Shane Ross is the Independent Alliance TD for Dublin South

Sunday Independent

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