Wednesday 26 June 2019

Modern battles and our crooked history


The windows were steaming up in the elegant Georgian rooms overlooking Merrion Square, as the predominantly male guests stood waiting for the latest offering from a school for scandal.

Scattered among the great and the good was the former director of prosecutions, James Hamilton, who would come in for honourable mention during the evening; High Court judge, Frank Clarke, academic historian Ronan Fanning, former PD leader Des O'Malley, pinstripe-suited TD Peter Mathews, press ombudsman John Horgan, Goldman Sachs representative and he of rugby fame, Hugo McNeill, a smattering of senators and a rash of reporters.

The fighting talk of Independent News & Media (INM) chairman James Osborne at a contentious board meeting earlier in the day, when he called on one of Denis O'Brien's representatives, Paul Connolly, to resign, was the chief topic of conversation among those assembled in what had once been the rooms of that champion of free speech, The Liberator, Daniel O'Connell.

It was an appropriate topic, as the book that was about to be launched -- Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp -- by Elaine Byrne, shines a light into the dark corners of Irish society where business and politics have often turned into a toxic mix and dodgy deals leave behind a lasting and unpleasant odour.

The terms oligarch and plutocrat rang around the room as Michael McDowell SC, the former attorney general and minister for justice, spoke with O'Connell-like passion on the themes of freedom of expression and media diversity.

The RTE camera was there to record the moment, but the footage, it appears, ended up on the cutting room floor. Great discourse doesn't always make the nine o'clock news.

"If in politics 'daylight is the best disinfectant', the role of our media cannot be ignored," said Mr McDowell, getting into his stride.

"The printed press is currently facing a technological challenge to its very existence. Ironically, it now seems to be becoming the battleground for thought control as well.

"As a society, and a democracy, we need to face up to the challenge to freedom and liberty which stems from the total absence of laws diversifying the media and their ownership.

"Nobody is investing in the print media these days for profit; on the contrary it seems plain as a pikestaff that investment is driven by considerations of social, political and editorial control and influence.

"Our media must be diverse in their ownership and editorial policy. They are not trophy possessions for the surplus cash of plutocrats and oligarchs like large hotels and Premiership football clubs."

"In Ireland, the oligarchs are on the march. They have some allies, alas, in high places who fete them as much as they can get away with, while feigning distance from them.

"It was interesting to note recently how some office-holders took pains to condemn hostile comments made in the past about the Mahon tribunal, while posing for pictures and slapping the backs and whispering in the ears of those who subjected the Moriarty tribunal to a sustained campaign of vilification and abuse.

"If the two parties in our Government cannot unite in challenging on our behalf the culture of impunity fostered by the rich and powerful, they will deserve the consequences.

"As British politicians are hourly learning to their pain at Leveson, snuggling up to the oligarchs doesn't seem so good the morning after."

Mr McDowell, one of the leading barristers to follow in the footsteps of Daniel O'Connell, also had a chilling warning for those who run our system of justice.

"I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that our system of criminal prosecution of fraud and corruption is pitifully inadequate," he said.

He asked his audience to consider the case of Bernie Madoff in the US and high-profile cases in Britain, and then look at how such matters are handled here.

"There seems to be an overwhelming impression that the prosecuting agencies in Ireland are simply not up to the job of timely, highly focused effective investigations.

"The phrase 'a file is being sent to the DPP' sounds increasingly like the description of the legal equivalent of a black hole in deep space, from which nothing emerges."

After suggesting that Ireland may now need a system akin to grand juries in the US, Mr McDowell issued a warning that should be taken seriously by those with power and influence.

"Delay and inaction in this area threaten social cohesion and also foster a culture of impunity.

"The figure of justice in Ireland increasingly seems to hold scales in one hand but a feather-duster (as opposed to a sword) of righteousness in the other."

Elaine Byrne, an academic and writer who has spent four years writing this comprehensive tome on corruption in Ireland over the last 90 years, said modestly that the pieces of the jigsaw were fashioned by whistleblowers and journalists; she put the pieces together to present the full picture.

"It is a book of stories, when you grow up behind a counter you hear a lot of stories," she said, referring to the family pub on the borders of Wicklow and Carlow where she grew up.

Scandals are something to which we've almost become immune in this country. They never seem to go away and, as Mr McDowell pointed out in his opening remarks, although politicians are often blamed, "the great majority of people who have served Ireland by holding elected public office during those 90 years were well-intentioned, honourable and decent people with high personal standards of behaviour".

Sunday Independent

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