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Ronan Fanning: Lowry may yet act as the catalyst to coalition divide

ON THE eve of the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill of 1912, the Irish Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, tried to explain the depth of Ulster Unionist opposition to his cabinet colleagues. Unionists, he wrote, believed "that under a Home Rule regime Ireland will become a miserable, one-horsed, poverty-stricken, priest-ridden, corrupt oligarchy".

Unionist beliefs were vindicated. 'Home Rule', whether in the shape of the Irish Free State of 1922-27 or of De Valera's Ireland, was Rome Rule. For the first 40 years of its history, independent Ireland was a miserable, poverty-stricken and priest-ridden State. But the days of corrupt oligarchy were delayed.

Whatever divided the antagonists in the Irish civil war, neither was in politics for the money. Indeed they and their families sometimes lived in circumstances perilously close to genteel poverty when their political fortunes faltered. Such was the fate, to take but two examples, of Richard Mulcahy's family when he lost his cabinet seat as a result of the so-called 'Army Mutiny' of 1924 and of Sean Lemass's family when Fianna Fail lost office in 1948.

Charles Haughey and the men in the mohair suits were the harbingers of the corrupt oligarchy that characterised the Irish body politic from the Sixties. As Elaine Byrne has shown so well in her ground-breaking book Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, there were earlier episodes of

corruption in what she calls the trilogy of tribunals: theGreat Southern Railways tribunal of 1943, the War tribunal of 1946 and the Locke's Distillery tribunal of 1947. But these were small beer in comparison with the avalanche of corruption that threatened to overwhelm the State in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Again, two examples will suffice. First, the McCracken tribunal report of August 1997 concluded that, by knowingly assisting Ben Dunne to evade tax, Michael Lowry was the beneficiary of Ir£395,000 in improvements to his home: "a person in the position of a government minister and member of cabinet," declared Mr Justice McCracken, "was able to ignore and indeed cynically evade, both the taxation and exchange control laws of the state with impunity".

Secondly – according to Dr Byrne's citation of the 'conservative' calculations of the Moriarty Tribunal of Inquiry into Payments to Politicians and Related Matter established by Dail Eireann in 1997 to investigate payments to Haughey and to Lowry – Haughey received over Ir£9m between 1979 (when he became Taoiseach) and 1996; in the Eighties, "Haughey was the beneficiary of 171 times his gross salary".

Dr Byrne's conclusion – that "the Moriarty tribunal slayed the myth that unethical political exploits were the exclusive preserve of Fianna Fail" – is incontrovertible. But that myth has died hard, as we can see from the stunningly eloquent silence of the response of Fine Gael ministers to the grotesque revelations of the Sunday Independent/Kevin Phelan tapes.

The obvious explanation is that Fianna Fail politicians were so much longer in office and had correspondingly greater opportunities to feather their nests. Haughey and his cronies consequently came to personify the worst kind of corruption. So it should be, but in the light of the Moriarty tribunal's findings about Michael Lowry, there can be no justification for Fine Gael's persistent and unctuous affectation to have a monopoly of the high moral ground.

"The greatest weakness of the Sinn Fein government," wrote a British official involved in the negotiations that culminated in the treaty that established independent Ireland, "is that it is almost void of any admission to the world or themselves that they can either think what is wrong or do what is wrong. That is exactly what the Greek writers meant by 'hubris'; the frame of mind which, on their theory, the gods instill into people whom they have marked for destruction."

It would be fanciful to suggest that the hubristic indifference of Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael cabinet colleagues to the Lowry affair will have so dramatic an outcome. But what is far from fanciful is that Michael Lowry may yet serve as the catalyst that shatters the cohesion of the coalition, much as Noel Browne did in the first coalition government of 1948-51.

The signs of tension have already been apparent for a month, ever since Alan Kelly, one of the Labour Party's Ministers of State, broke ranks by publicly demanding that Mr Lowry answer the "obvious questions" posed by the tapes.

Mr Kelly has a vested interest in anything that further discredits Mr Lowry, as the latter was quick to point out, because the two men are constituency colleagues. But that is less significant than the fact that Mr Kelly's intervention came a fortnight before the catastrophic collapse of the Labour Party's vote in the Meath East by-election.

The Dail is in recess until April 18, and by then the panic infecting all Labour deputies about losing their seats at the next general election will have been festering in the dark for three weeks. So it seems unlikely when they return to the limelight of Leinster House that Mr Kelly's will still be a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

The key figure is, of course, Eamon Gilmore. So far he has been remarkably loyal to Mr Kenny; indeed, the strength of the bonding between Taoiseach and Tanaiste is the foundation stone upon which such success as has been achieved by the present Government rests. That is why the threat to Eamon Gilmore's leadership of the Labour Party is also a threat to the stability of the Government and, ultimately perhaps, to Mr Kenny's position as Taoiseach.

That is also why Mr Kenny, like Mr Gilmore, knows that they will either hang together or hang separately. And that is why, if Mr Gilmore demands a government response to the tapes, he should be given what he wants. Unless, of course, Mr Kenny is so deluded that he believes Fine Gael's holding on to its seat in Meath East was rooted in anything other than the tsunami of public sympathy triggered by Shane McEntee's suicide. In which case, hubris is indeed alive and well and living in Merrion Street.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin. His new book, 'Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-22', will be published on May 2

Irish Independent