Wednesday 13 November 2019

Damien Corless: Is there a chancer gene in our DNA?

Céad míle fáilte to Chancerland, where your chickens never come home to roost

Your country needs you: Gerry Ryan rose to the top of radio broadcasting after performing a hoax involving a lamb which pulled the wool over the nation's ears.
Your country needs you: Gerry Ryan rose to the top of radio broadcasting after performing a hoax involving a lamb which pulled the wool over the nation's ears.
The big squeeze: Alex Murphy and Chris Walley as the ultimate chancers, Conor and Jock, in Irish hit movie 'The Young Offenders'
Charles Haughey, who rarely tightened his belt, was a shamless exponent of the art of 'hiding in plain sight'.

Damian Corless

It emerged this week that a feared tsunami of family home repossessions has not happened, and perhaps will not happen after all. Faced with 33,400 residential mortgage accounts in arrears of more than two years, the banks' appetite for going to law has halved in those two years, while the number of repossession orders granted by the courts has fallen by 20pc in 12 months.

Not everyone is delighted. Some fans of fiscal rectitude accuse the financial institutions of caving in to what they see as a cadre of chancers concealed amongst the genuine hardship cases, characterising it as a reward for Won't Pays masquerading as Can't Pays. Other, kinder, observers point out that the real chancers are the bankers themselves, the self-styled Masters Of The Universe who chanced their clients' arms, lost an additional leg on the deal, and escaped with a light slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, enemies of Fianna Fáil have portrayed that party's U-turn on water charges (not this week's - the previous one) as a chancers' charter, encouraging multitudes who'd paid one or more bill to belatedly join the refuseniks on the on/off chance that the Irish Water house of cards would tumble.

In the weeks since the Garda's hapless problems with the postal service hit the headlines, there's been a marked increase in the number of defendants claiming that summonses and notices have gone missing in the mail. And so-called compo culture is once again news, seducing otherwise upstanding citizens with an alternative daydream to that National Lottery reverie about buying an island.

In this version, the fantasy is about what you might do if you were involved in a genuine accident, but spied an inviting opportunity to get even with your gouging motor insurer. After all, didn't Robin Hood steal from the rich to give to the poor? And who are the poor in the unequal contest between the put-upon motorist and the corporate giants who for years have been chancing their arm with a pricing formula of "pick a number, any number, now double it and let's see if that'll stick"? Besides, even if a slightly exaggerated claim does get blown out of court, has anyone ever been charged with perjury?

Read more: Moral hazard? The strategic defaulters were right all along

If a vague suspicion is dawning that there's a chancer gene in our DNA, it's time to hit Default and blame 800 years of English oppression.

In Victorian times the British PM Benjamin Disraeli confessed so much. For Disraeli, the reprobate Irish mindset was caused by: "A starving population, an absentee aristocracy and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world."

For the vast majority living under colonial rule, that rule was never legitimate, and laws and norms imposed by a foreign power were to be poked and tested, not respected.

But by the time Disraeli spoke those words, that "alien" Church of Ireland was being swept into the margins by a resurgent Catholicism. By independence in 1922 the Catholic Church had, for half a century, held the role normally reserved for government in western democracies. So the first Free State administrations were born into a situation where the nationalist populace had already invested most of their respect and deference in the institution of the Church.

And almost from the start, our homegrown ruling caste demonstrated that they too were thoroughly soused in this age-old lack of respect for the rule of law and order. To be fair, the first, deeply puritan and authoritarian administration of WT Cosgrave tried to impose strict law and order, but ten years of stern posturing couldn't wipe out centuries of defiance.

Bad example from the top

The history of Irish politics and society since independence is a history of bad example from the top. Arm-chancing has been deeply embedded in our political culture. In most other western democracies, the term "vote early, vote often", is a bit of jokey banter. Here, from the outset, it was a serious political strategy. In the wake of the early general elections following independence, the Cumann na nGaedheal administration brought hundreds of prosecutions against Sinn Féin and FF supporters for double- and multiple-voting. With FF in power for most of the next 40 years, prosecutions dropped to near zero. Electoral fraud had become so ingrained by 1960 that independent TD Frank Sherwin fumed in the Dáil: "All the parties treat it as a joke, that is why the Act is broken in 1,001 ways and no-one is ever charged. The parties behave like gangsters in Chicago." For his troubles, he was met with gales of laughter from both sides of the house.

The figurehead who provided the worst example of them all was Charles Haughey who solemnly warned in his first TV address as Taoiseach: "We are living way beyond our means. We have been borrowing enormous amounts of money at a rate which just cannot continue." In the impoverished 1980s, it was an unwritten law of the land that if you had it, you most definitely didn't flaunt it. Never one to be cowed by laws, Haughey was the king of conspicuous consumption, hell-bent on being admired and envied as the man with the stately home, the private island, the yacht, the stables, the art collection, the Mercs and all the perks.

Haughey, with others like Liam Lawlor TD, was a shameless exponent of the art of "hiding in plain sight". In contrast, his protégé Bertie Ahern was so inconspicuous about his income that he had difficulty accounting for it before a tribunal. Under questioning, he too joined the ranks of our leaders giving what many would regard as bad example, revealing that he'd won large amounts of problematic cash betting on horses.

When it comes to claiming expenses, our ruling classes have given ample cause to doubt their bona fides. In the 1980s Garret FitzGerald was one of very few politicians concerned that TDs and Senators were claiming mileage expenses for attending Leinster House for days they stayed away. One of FitzGerald's first acts as Taoiseach was to install a roll-book at the Oireachtas entrance so deputies could sign in as proof of attendance. After some weeks it was quietly removed, containing just two signatures. Not that politicians alone are culpable in this regard. The head of a major record label once arrived to check out the Irish arm of the operation. When his man on the ground suggested a meal at one of Dublin's finest restaurants, the visitor said no, he'd rather go to this place Superquinn where, according to scores of receipts submitted to London, the Irish exec regularly wined and dined VIP clients.

Official Ireland doesn't do consequences

Whether it be the rules of the road, the antics of the police, whatever, we constantly hear that what's needed is not another commission, or new legislation - just the proper enforcement of existing regulations. And it is plain to see that Official Ireland does not do consequences and is especially bad at dealing out comeuppances.

Cynics would suggest that this is in large part because, behind the façade of a functioning egalitarian republic, we are governed by a tight, cosy clique in business, in the law and in politics, who cover each other's backs. Of course conspiracy theorists will always say that, but it's not just the cynics who've believed that in a better-functioning democracy a lot more comeuppances would have been handed out following the economic and social devastation of the past decade. The widespread perception that the link between transgression and consequence, already weak in Irish society, has broken had magnified the prevailing mood of public disgruntlement with 'The System'.

And if that's all too grim, let's reflect on how the late Gerry Ryan won his special place as the sounding board of the nation, and how it reflects on us as a society. Ryan was a bog-standard radio deejay when, in 1987, he led a bunch of city slicker survivalists abandoned in remote countryside by the Gay Byrne radio show. A couple of days in, he shocked listeners with a graphic account of sucking warm blood from a cute little lamb he'd just skulled with a rock. There were outraged outbursts in the Dáil and, after the killing was exposed as an elaborate hoax, calls for Ryan's arrest for wasting garda time.

Lambo's punishment? By the time it ended, the episode had become a case of "I'm now a celebrity, get me out of here and into the top slot on 2FM." Comeuppances? Bah-bah humbug.

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