Review: Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp? by Elaine A Byrne
Manchester University Press €20
Elaine Byrne is one of the most interesting members of a brave new generation of social and political commentators casting a questioning and sceptical eye on Irish society. She is, above all, a "nuts and bolts" pragmatic commentator with a strong set of personal values. On TV and in print she comes across as straight, straightforward but not straight-laced.
It was in 2006, a year when the political process was not yet in turmoil or disgrace, that Elaine submitted her doctoral thesis The Moral and Legal Development of Corruption; 19th and 20th Century Political Corruption in Ireland to the University of Limerick.
From this doctoral thesis, she has carved out a book which concentrates exclusively on 20th Century independent Ireland.
The scope of Elaine's original work spanned two centuries -- but this book is confined to the final 88 years of that period -- the period when Ireland became self-governing. Such a narrow focus should not distract the reader from a broader truth -- that Ireland under the Union was also riven with corruption, jobbery, favouritism, religious discrimination and cronyism, originating from two sources -- top down from the British establishment and the ascendancy, and bottom up from the Irish themselves.
It would be wrong, therefore, to deduce from Elaine Byrne's book that Irish independence is the starting point or cause of an entirely new and unprecedented era of political corruption.
Her doctoral thesis, if published, would demonstrate the opposite.
In 1922, when the Free State government was literally under siege in Government Buildings and ministers could only get exercise by walking on the sniper-proof roof of the building, my grandfather was among them. Food was brought in. Two years later, the Department of Finance surcharged each of the ministers concerned with £4-9-6 for the expense that the fledgling Free State had undertaken to feed its own ministers under siege!
Contrast this ethic with the time when I, as minister, witnessed countless trays of sandwiches and meals for government meetings and committee meetings and meetings with groups such as the social partners. Few would consider it in any way appropriate to impose surcharges on ministers involved or that it was in any way improper that food should be served on such occasions.
This all goes to show, as Elaine Byrne points out, that concepts of corruption and/or impropriety evolve over the years. Winston Churchill, for instance, acquired and refurbished his mansion at Chartwell on the basis of gifts from wealthy backers. Nobody cried foul at the time. More recently gifts from Ben Dunne and Patrick Gallagher helped maintain Charlie Haughey's Churchillian lifestyle at Abbeville. By then, however, such gifts were considered wholly unacceptable even if they were not of themselves corrupt.
Some classical aspects of corruption never change. Bribing planning officials is and always was corrupt. Paying ministers large sums in return for their assistance in obtaining government licences and business concessions is, and always was, corrupt.
The fact that we now have tribunals to investigate these matters reflects the fact that corruption is never wholly absent from societies. But it would be far worse if we had no inquiries at all in response to suspected corruption.
Elaine Byrne's survey of tribunals established in 20th- Century Ireland is a fascinating reprise and reminder of a low level of endemic corruption in Ireland.
It seems to me that how Ireland responds to suspected corruption and to tribunal reports is arguably more important than establishing the exact extent of past political impropriety which has escaped formal investigation.
In particular, the culture of impunity which has surfaced in response to the Moriarty Tribunal report is much more damaging to the body politic than some of the facts established by Moriarty -- shocking as they were.
Only a small minority of readers of this newspaper will ever read the Moriarty Report. Given that it is freely available on the internet, that is a pity.
If more people read it, the culture of impunity now being fostered by some of the proven malefactors and some of their friends in high office would cause an outcry.
The variety of issues that have been investigated by tribunals and other inquiries in independent Ireland is by no means comprehensive. Take the attempted printing of millions of counterfeit punts by the Workers Party Repsol Printers. That took place right here in Dublin. Nobody was brought to account for that. Nobody sought any inquiry into the Workers Party "entryist" tactics in RTE and the Revenue Commissioners.
Likewise, no one has been brought to account for the protection rackets, extortion, murder, robberies, smuggling and blackmail used by the Provisional movement to fund its political and terrorist activities for decades.
We hear facile talk about an Irish Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But nobody is prepared to investigate the attempt by the Provos to sell their military technology to the FARC guerrillas in Columbia for $25m in the 1990s. What was that money to be used for? Who knew about it? You would have to conclude that we have a strange society indeed that turns a blind eye to such events. We even have significant cohorts in the media who would prefer not to revisit those events at all.
I was surprised, after my appointment as Minister for Justice, to discover that a substantial minority of members of An Garda Siochana still believed that party political affiliation was a central factor in promotions within the force. I knew for a fact that there was absolutely no truth in that belief as far as my own period in office was concerned.
Moreover, the appointments over which I had any influence at commissioner level were made without my ever inquiring or knowing or demonstrating any interest in the party political opinions, if any, of any of the appointees. The new arrangements for promotions which I fostered under the Garda Siochana Act should, I hope, end all perceptions of such cronyism within the gardai.
Some State appointments must be discretionary and some discretionary appointments are vested by law or by the constitution in the government of the day. I strongly believe that it is possible to put paid to the perception of party political appointments simply by being generous and open-minded. The late Attorney General, Rory Brady, and I, during the period 2002-2007, made it absolutely clear that judicial appointments were made on the basis of merit right across the political spectrum in terms of party and ideology. Lastly, in relation to our response to corruption, there is the thorny issue of the costs of tribunals. I think I should say that barristers, whether judges or still in practice, generally have little experience in investigation or administration. The protracted and expensive nature of tribunals which, I believe, is caused by adoption of practices, procedures and cost structures of the courts, has damaged public confidence in the tribunal as an instrument of inquiry; there must be better ways to do the business faster and more cheaply.
One such mechanism was the Commissions of Investigation Act which I introduced and which was used very successfully in the case of Judge Yvonne Murphy's report in relation to clerical sexual abuse. That report was done faster, cheaper and, I think, better than any tribunal could have done, bearing in mind the subject matter of the inquiry.
Inquiry is essentially different from adversarial justice. This truth has not yet been fully taken on board.
Elaine Byrne's treatise on political corruption in Ireland is a fascinating and valuable study of those issues which have led to inquiries; almost by definition, the book has to ignore those many other potential areas of impropriety and corruption which have never been investigated.
For anyone who wants to get a handle on the way in which the independent Irish State has reacted to some but not all of the corruption that exists in our society, Elaine Byrne has painted a brave, compelling, worrying picture.
Sunday Indo Living