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Review: Politics: Political Corruption in Ireland, 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp by Dr Elaine Byrne

'By its very nature corruption is secretive, complex and generally not of the obliging kind that provides an arsenal of smoking guns." Here is just one of the many incisive observations by Elaine Byrne in her outstanding probe of nearly 90 years of the intersection of politics, financial dig-outs, favouritism and extraordinary dissimulation of language in sovereign, self- governed Ireland.

This is an extremely important book. It comes at a time when there is widespread disillusionment about the merit of public inquiries into controversial events in Irish public life. Very many people see them as barrister-fattening exercises with little adverse consequences for the wrongdoers who are exposed.

And no wonder, either, that we are fatigued with the process.

In the 20-year period, 1990-2010, as Byrne points out, there have been no fewer than 32 public inquiries initiated "to examine matters of ethical concern within politics, business, church, police, finance, public service, professions and health", as she puts it.

But this brings us to one of the great merits of the book. Take the major tribunals of inquiry of the last 20 years -- the Hamilton Beef Tribunal; the McCracken Tribunal on Ben Dunne's payments to Haughey and his relationship with Michael Lowry; the Moriarty Tribunal to further investigate payments to Haughey and Lowry, and the Flood/Mahon Tribunal in planning matters and payments to politicians.

Understandably, very few people will have trawled through these door-stopper productions, and will have settled for media analysis of their findings. But clearly Byrne has trawled through them all, and she serves up a truly shocking resume of what these tribunals uncovered by dispassionately setting out their key findings of fact.

She has not uncovered anything new, but the masterly assembling of evidence and her forensic analysis still has the power to shock.

Take the beef industry controversies of the 1980s which culminated in the tribunal of that name. In 1989 beef baron Larry Goodman told a Fair Trade Commission inquiry in relation to a company called Master Meats: "I didn't own it. I never owned it and I can put my hand on my heart and say that."

However, in a subsequent 2002 High Court case, Goodman accepted that he did own and control the company.

Byrne's narrative also brings out the contrasting approach of the different judges in their reports. She concludes that the Beef Tribunal report by Judge Hamilton was "unwieldy and opaque".

And, for instance, while it found that Albert Reynolds as minister for industry and commerce had favoured particular meat companies with vital allocations of export insurance, and thereby placed other companies at a considerable disadvantage, the tribunal chairman concluded that the minister had acted on the basis of his "conception of the requirements of the national interest".

In her own conclusion on the matter, Byrne says that "the tribunal lacked the courage to condemn political favouritism and instead condoned political decisions described as in the national interest".

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This rather feather-duster approach by the late Judge Hamilton contrasts sharply in Byrne's narrative with, for instance, the scalpel-like approach of Judge Moriarty in his findings.

She quotes his conclusion in respect of his findings that Charlie Haughey had received over £9m in donations from business people between 1979 and 1996 (which the tribunal calculated at €45m in contemporary terms): "Certain of the acts or decisions on his part while Taoiseach were referable to some of those payments," and that the secretiveness and scale of the payments "can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy".

There is so much more of interest in this book, including analysis of how political corruption has changed over the decades, and there is much scholarly elaboration on different theories and types of corruption.

It ranges across the controversies and inquiries of the 1930s and 1940s that erupted in that protectionist era when state contracts for regulated goods were extremely valuable, and it also delves into the so-called "Golden Circle" controversies of the 1980s.

Turning to our current woes, and our loss of economic sovereignty, Byrne sees Fianna Fáil's indulgence of the demands of property interests being heavily influenced by that sector's strong financial support for the party.

She outlines how over a third of disclosed donations to the party in the decade 1997-2007 were from property and construction interests and, at the same time, "Ireland was awash with tax reliefs, incentive schemes, and income tax exemptions for developers and investors which inflated the price of land and overheated the market".

This is a must-read book -- most especially for every member of the Oireachtas and local authorities, for senior officials in central and local government, and -- yes -- for political lobbyists too.

And while the book went to print before the recent publication of the Mahon Report on Bertie Ahern's arcane financial arrangements, those who are, or should be, concerned with the findings a year ago of the Moriarty Tribunal will enjoy a timely refresher.

Stephen O'Byrnes is the former policy director with the Progressive Democrats and is now a communications consultant.

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