Friday 15 November 2019

It's about time we held public figures to account and recognised failure

Patrick Nulty
Patrick Nulty

It's a measure of how inured we've become to scandal that resignations of public figures send such shockwaves through the political system.

Now that we've had two in quick succession – Independent TD Patrick Nulty and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan – is the country finally entering a new era of accountability?

When Patrick Nulty resigned his Dail seat at the weekend, following revelations that he had sent inappropriate messages to multiple women, including a 17-year-old girl, people praised his decision.

The perceived wisdom was that Nulty's behaviour was an appalling lapse in judgment but he had taken responsibility for his actions and had paid a heavy price.

He could, said some, have, like other politicians embroiled in controversy, weathered the storm.

But his behaviour constituted more than a mere lapse. It was a gross abuse of his privileged position. He had to go.

Our clientelist political system means that TDs often act as an intermediary between constituents and state services.

This puts them in a position of power, with the purported ability to solve a multitude of problems by pulling strings to get medical cards and resolve housing issues.

Usually, politicians offer this assistance in the unspoken hope that constituents will remember their help at the next election.

However, some vulnerable women who came to Nulty for assistance were made to feel that his help could be contingent on some kind of reciprocal sexual favour.

This was never explicitly stated, but could easily have been inferred from the tone, content and timing of the messages he sent.

The 'Irish Sun' yesterday revealed that Nulty had promised to help a victim of domestic violence, who had recently left a refuge for battered women, with a rent allowance issue.

But, within days of their initial meeting he sent her a message asking her out on a dinner date.

"I was wondering if I could take you for dinner maybe? I am a good guy and would like to help you," he said. When she said no, that she "wasn't ready for anything like that", he sent her another message asking if she wanted to reconsider and that they had "nothing to lose".

He may not have had anything to lose, but she potentially did and his messages put her in an invidious position.

She opted not to meet him but another, more desperate, woman could have felt compelled to take him up on his offer.

In a separate case, a woman who approached him with a housing issue was allegedly told to come into his office to discuss the matter but to wear a skirt instead of jeans.

Confronted with these, and other allegations, Nulty initially tried to evade responsibility by claiming that his phone had been hacked.

It was only when he was shown geo-tagging evidence, which proved some of the messages had been sent from Leinster House, that he admitted his guilt and resigned.

This decision should not be lauded or considered brave. He had no other option. Elsewhere, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan fell on his sword yesterday following months of controversy surrounding his handling of the whistleblower saga. His decision has been ascribed to the political fallout from his infamous use of the word "disgusting" to describe two whistleblowers.

However, this focus is misguided. As Commissioner, Callinan had ultimate responsibility for a litany of management and administrative failures that were discovered in the penalty points system.

THE fact it took the whistleblowers so long for their complaints to be treated seriously, the slow pace of investigation and the sheer number of reports into the fiasco, meant his position was no longer tenable.

Regrettably, nowhere in his resignation statement does Callinan take any responsibility for these institutional failures.

Instead, he said, "recent developments were proving to be a distraction from the important work" of the gardai and he was resigning "in the best interests of An Garda Siochana and my family".

That is undoubtedly the case, but it is also true that the behaviour of the commissioner, and his apparent disdain when discussing the whistleblowers, undoubtedly added to these "distractions".

Ireland has a dismal record when it comes to public officials being held to account, but part of the reason is that the public has come to expect low standards in high office.

Scandals are discovered, they are greeted with outrage, a media frenzy briefly ensues and the controversy is quickly forgotten. Resignations are rare, not because they're unwarranted but because there is no culture of accountability. Perhaps, after this week, the public will learn that resignation is not a dirty word and this rotten culture can finally change.

Irish Independent

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