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James Downey: We must halt our moral as well as financial decay

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YOU have to take the "corruption perception index" published by Transparency International with a grain of salt. Perception depends on who is doing the perceiving and who influences the perception.

On the BBC a few nights ago, Jeremy Paxman conducted a telling little interview with the Venezuelan and Finnish ambassadors to Britain. The Venezuelan pointed out that right-wing broadcasters like Fox News influenced the way that Americans view his country. Fox News hate Venezuela because it has a left-wing government. They don't tell you that large numbers of people there go to prison for corruption -- just like the United States, and most unlike a certain country we could mention.

From the Irish viewpoint, the Finnish ambassador was more interesting. His country is famously one of the cleanest in the world. Why? Largely because his people are well-educated and won't put up with malpractice.

Here, we export people like that: the smartest, the most enterprising, those who detest the abominable way the country is run and organise to change it.

But we don't export all of them. This week the "perception" report was challenged by someone within the authors' camp, John Devitt of Transparency Ireland.

He said that Ireland was much more corrupt than our ranking, 14th cleanest in the world, indicated. And anyone who has looked in any depth into the causes of our present woes must agree.

One of the crucial, and one of the most dismaying, reasons was identified by Transparency Ireland in a report published in March 2009.

Here, we have "legal corruption". Practices rightly banned in better governed countries are often perfectly legal and indeed encouraged and supported by governments, especially through the taxation system.

Most of them remain invisible to the public, except when some event occurs which triggers indignation.

One such event was the sight of the ministers' limousines rolling up to Farmleigh as they prepared to discuss the catastrophe into which they themselves have plunged us.

It was a delight to hear the furious callers to Joe Duffy likening them to the Mafia and pointing out that other countries have car pools, not expensive personal toys and drivers who double as bodyguards.

The ministers would deny, with almost equal indignation, that these perks amount to corruption.

That shows their lack of understanding, especially understanding of language.

How do you define the term? The simplest definition is that Mr A gives money to Mr B to buy an improper favour. That makes both of them guilty. But even at this level, things are not quite so simple.

English courts can find, and have found, that Mr A gave a bribe to Mr B but Mr B did not receive the bribe, or vice versa. The same thing can happen under our law.

A somewhat analogous example occurred when it was found that Charles J Haughey had received large sums of money from admirers. His apologists argued that he had done no favours in return.

In reality, everybody knew that donors had indeed benefited, often handsomely. But even if those transactions had been entirely one-sided, they would still have been corrupt.

Corruption can exist even if no money is involved. For example, it is corrupt to try to influence public appointments, something that happens all the time.

It is corrupt to over-pay public representatives, to allow them to draw multiple salaries and pensions and a variety of unjustified allowances and expenses.

But the worst thing about corruption is that it so easily becomes insidious and widespread, and part of the culture, to the extent that people engage in it without realising that they are doing anything wrong.

A couple of years ago, a certain minister -- whom I know for an honest man -- berated me for a critical piece I had written about decentralisation. I said that my chief concern had not been for the possibility of dodgy transactions but the calamitous effect on the public service.

My fears have since been all too well borne out. But he did not grasp my point, any more than the ministers at Farmleigh could bring themselves to believe that they are not entitled to their Lords-of-Human-Kind posturing.

Now we are engaged in a bitter struggle to save what remains of our economic sovereignty. If we win -- and we had better win -- what kind of society will emerge?

One definition of corruption, ignored by Transparency International, is "moral decay". If and when we stop the financial rot, will we have done anything to stop the moral rot? Anything to restore trust in our institutions and substitute fair dealing for cute-hoorism?

Nothing has happened in the last two years to suggest a positive answer.

But we have to try, for practical as well as moral reasons. The cleanest countries are also the most peaceful, the most prosperous, the most equal, and the happiest. We could start by taking those cars away.

jdowney@independent.ie

Irish Independent