Thursday 17 January 2019

Code of silence among politicians is shameful

The sad truth is our public representatives don't really do resignations, and the political system provides no easy way to sack them, writes Eamon Delaney

IN many ways, our offending politicians are like the lovable rogues of Hollywood cinema. Think of Ivor Callely, well-groomed, nicely clad, pictured shopping for organic fruit at a market in west Cork, while the world clamours for his resignation, or even arrest.

He only has to look back at the 1980s and 90s in his own party and another movie comes to mind -- Goodfellas, with the boys on the make, paying homage to the Boss, but with a watertight internal code of honour. They were untouchable, and the only danger was you might get whacked by your own side; off-loaded as 'expendable' or someone who eventually became just too much of a liability.

Having assured us that " every tree in west Dublin" had been checked to establish Ray Burke's innocence of taking planning bungs, Bertie Ahern eventually decided that old Rambo Burke was actually unsustainable and quietly encouraged him to walk the plank. What took Bertie so long, we wondered?

For the important point is that it takes a lot to get a politician to resign in this country and most of them hang on brazenly, like the dapper Ivor. And, even if you depart, you can always make it back into the fold, like Beverley Flynn, or Michael Lowry -- more or less. Sure didn't the ebullient Enda Kenny recently joke about Lowry possibly looking for a Fine Gael membership form to rejoin the party.

Only joking, said Enda, but with the 'new-look, old-style' Enda these days, it's hard to tell.

Our politicians do not generally have a habit of falling on their sword, quickly and cleanly when a controversy engulfs. In the UK, they'd be gone by tea-time, even to save the embarrassment for their own party. You don't hang about. And sometimes you're given no option. On hearing that a newspaper was about to break a story about Labour's foreign secretary Robin Cook having an affair, spin-doctor Alastair Campbell simply phoned Cook at Heathrow Airport and told him to immediately make a statement.

If a disgraced politician doesn't resign for something serious, the party knows that the electorate will probably throw them out anyway. Possibly because he straddles the two political cultures, of shady Ireland and trigger-happy UK, the DUP's Peter Robinson decided to only temporarily resign from the Northern Executive when he was mired in scandal. But when it came to the election, the voters threw him out anyway. This is not the case in the Republic, where scandal-plagued politicians continue to get elected, and even top the poll.

And why wouldn't this be so, given that for over 30 years, the political culture was bestrode by Charles J Haughey, about whom legendary rumours about corruption and graft abounded. But sure if he was doing it for himself, maybe he could do it for the rest of us: that was the attitude. It was all part of the wide-boy, cute-hoor, post-colonial attitude. We conned the Brits and the landlords for so long, and sure aren't we still conning the 'authorities'? Except that we've wised up (somewhat) to the fact that the authorities are us -- and the money is ours.

Also, Callely is no Haughey, establishing Temple Bar and the seeds of the Celtic Tiger. And he's no Lowry, who in fairness has been a great asset to the people of Thurles and Tipperary. No, he's just 'a flake on the make', a grinning apparatchik who is out for himself, accumulating properties and ripping off the system.

And yet, the allegations against Callely are serious ones. But there is no procedure for sacking Callely from the Senate, short of making him a judge or deeming him to be of 'unsound mind'. The system cannot get him. The Senate can barely call him to account. And so the media have to hound him, while his party elders keep a stony silence.

And meanwhile, we have a further degradation of a political system that is already at a low ebb.

But Callely knows that at the next election Fianna Fail will be turfed out, and he can retire on a nice pension. The reality is that the whole political culture knows it. This is a system, after all, that has done nothing to reform itself since the revelations first started about the ludicrous unvouched expenses system, the crazy mobile phone allowances, the mileage allowance, the overnight allowance, the pension double-ups, and all the other perks that make political life, and even the abuse, so bearable.

At least in the UK, they reformed the system after the Westminster expenses scandal and David Cameron has carpeted anyone who disobeys -- and, in some cases, made them repay the money. Not so here. Here, it's just business as usual.

And the other parties have questions to answer, not least Fine Gael. For example, some time back, it was revealed that Fine Gael TDs Olwyn Enright and Joe McHugh, who are married, were separately claiming the €145 overnight allowance when they stayed in Dublin -- in the same room. This is almost €900 for three days. If a

couple are civil servants, then they can only claim for one bed, vouched. This is the real problem here, of course: an unvouched expenses system that allows the politicians, without receipts, to milk the system. The claims are

technically legal but hardly ethical. And the sums are considerable.

McHugh and Enright were married for almost four years, so if you took three days a week for say 30 weeks per year at €145 per night, it gives a figure of almost €45,000, which was claimed unethically. This is a lot more than the €3,000 that Ivor Callely was claiming.

But when this story emerged, it was barely picked up on and there was little flak from other politicians. Now we know why, given that so many of them are up to something similar. Olwyn Enright announced that the couple had stopped double-claiming, as if we should be grateful. But actually, why don't they pay the money back, like they were urging the bankers to do with their bonuses? And why doesn't 'no-hooky-here' Enda Kenny get them to do so?

Come to think of it, what does Enda think of the whole matter? After all, what was especially galling at the time of these claims was that Enright was her party's spokesperson on community and family affairs, and was warning the rest of us about welfare fraud! But then, when it comes to Leinster House, it's one law for them, and another one for the rest of us.

The curious thing, however, is that, in the meantime, many politicians are bounced from office for offences that, to most of us, are much more human and understandable, and even forgivable, such as Trevor Sargent contacting the police over a constituent, a prisoner, who felt genuinely persecuted. Or Willie O'Dea, who got caught spinning to a local journalist about a Sinn Fein opponent.

In fairness, once O'Dea realised what he had said, he went and changed his statement. This should have been enough. But the issue was skillfully brought alive again, helped along by the demands of the junior party in government, the Greens. These are resignations sparked more by technical obligations and the process of being 'found out'. They are not fuelled by huge and sustained public anger. No, instead, public anger is being directed at the likes of Ivor Callely, who can't be bothered to even explain, or begin to explain, his alleged behaviour.

And when one particular chancer lets the side down, like Ivor, the reaction of the party elders is just as it is depicted in those Hollywood movies -- an embarrassing omerta, or code of silence.

Sunday Independent

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