Sunday 26 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: One hundred reasons to dislike Big Phil

The Minister for Threatening Citizens will soon be knocking at your door

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

DID you notice the single most embarrassing fact in the 3,270 page Mahon report? It seems that no one bribes TDs. It's worth your while to bung a cabinet minister, or a lowly councillor.

The minister will have tentacles that can tickle party people and state officials. A councillor can vote through a measure that enhances your financial assets. But, a TD? Not much point, really.

Ah, but, I hear you say -- wasn't Liam Lawlor a mere TD? And everyone knew you could rent him by the hour, the week or the year.

Liam was a special case. Apart from his influence at local level, he was a master at using his membership of an Oireachtas committee to launch avaricious assaults on his targets.

(Liam, you may remember, was his party's representative on the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service. One of its jobs was to keep an eye on politicians' standards. Liam, in short, was Fianna Fail's go-to guy when it came to ethics.)

Liam bamboozled his way into various business deals by sheer force of personality. Hinting that his membership of a committee, or his supposed closeness to the levers of power, could swing a deal or block it, he demanded a piece of the action.

At the moment, following the devastating Mahon report, our political servants are somewhat shell-shocked. A bit like Catholic bishops in the wake of one of those reports on child abuse.

Micheal Martin is trying desperately to find a reason for Fianna Fail to exist. There's nothing the party stands for that Fine Gael and Labour don't espouse. It's not like they're over-burdened with talent. What's the point, folks? Form a nostalgia club and meet once a month to reminisce about the good old days, when you'd all turn up at the RDS and have noisy orgasms at the sight of Charlie and Bertie and Ray and Liam and Pee.

Fine Gael is playing it cool. Low-key expressions of disgust. The impression they're aiming at is quiet high-mindedness. Oh, indeed, they suggest -- if only we'd been in charge . . .

They must be relieved that the media didn't seem to have room for the Tom Hand affair. You know about the Tom Hand affair? Try pages 930-939 of the Mahon report. Back in the early Nineties, a Fine Gael councillor called Tom Hand claimed to Frank Dunlop that he'd been offered £100,000 to vote against allowing Owen O'Callaghan's Quarryvale project to go ahead. So, if Frank wanted him to vote for the project it would cost £250,000.

I like the sound of this guy. Most wimpy councillors charged one or two grand -- Tom sounds like a man who believed in himself.

Frank Dunlop was outraged that Tom wanted so much. He warned Tom he'd tell his party leader, John Bruton. Doesn't bother me in the slightest, says Tom. So, in May 1993, Frank told Mr Bruton that a Fine Gael councillor was looking for a "substantial sum of money" for his vote.

Which was when, wielding the sword of truth and justice, John Bruton tore the whole scandal wide open, drenched it in the disinfectant of transparency and killed dead the culture of corruption that . . . oh, wait a minute, that's in some alternate reality.

In this world, John Bruton replied to Frank: "Neither Fine Gael or the world is populated by angels." He was "disinclined" to believe Dunlop, he said later, and "wary" of him. Anyway, he told the tribunal, it was up to Dunlop to go to the cops, "as political parties were not equipped to conduct criminal inquiries".

Seven years later, in April 2000, there was a leak saying Dunlop would reveal this story at the tribunal. Mr Bruton sent barrister George Bermingham into the tribunal to flatly deny Dunlop told him any such thing. In December 2003 he told the tribunal the conversation he had with Dunlop was "inconsequential".

In October 2007, when Dunlop gave sworn evidence on this, Mr Bruton mulled over the details and then told the tribunal that the phrase about no angels in Fine Gael "sort of rung a bell in my mind". And "it gradually came back to me that in fact Mr Dunlop had said something to me, that wasn't inconsequential".

Nineteen months after Dunlop told Mr Bruton about Tom Hand, Mr Bruton became Taoiseach. Which was when, wielding the sword of truth and justice, Mr Bruton . . . well, he appointed Michael Lowry to the cabinet. Mr Lowry informed Mr Bruton he was a tax evader who took advantage of a tax amnesty, but this didn't seem to be a barrier to advancement.

After the past few days, a casual observer might conclude that the Irish political landscape is populated by a mixture of the crooked and the ineffectual. Those who weren't on the take seemed either disinclined to take seriously claims about corruption, or ineffectual in the face of the compulsively unethical.

(I write here, you may notice, in the past tense. As I'm sure no politician is currently on the take. Not even one. None. Really.)

There's a danger that we might conclude that we're better off having the ECB run the country, since the denizens of Leinster House are far from impressive. However, let's finish on a cheery note.

Let's heed the presence in our midst of one dynamic politician of vision and tenacity. I refer, of course, to Big Phil Hogan, Minister for Threatening the Citizens.

Phil is currently cracking his whip above the heads of those malcontents who object to his Household Charge. Phil doesn't see why anyone should balk at paying €100 a year, it being a mere two euro a week.

Generally speaking, I'm in favour of taxation. I like having hospitals and schools and footpaths. I like to know that if someone is kicking in my front door I can ring the police. My instinct, when the household charge was announced, was to pay it.

I know, I know -- there are lots of people so stretched to the limit that even two euro more a week is too much.

Happily, I have a job, I can afford to pay.

But, seriously Phil -- you're getting on my nerves. In fact, you're turning into a prize gobshite. Or, maybe that permanently nervous smile conceals the fact that you were always one.

Last week, Phil announced that he has the legislation to break into our bank accounts and take the hundred euro. He can force companies to deduct it from wages, and state bodies to deduct it from benefits. And he will. "I'm not going to budge a bit," said Phil.

Yesterday, the Irish Independent revealed that Phil has instructed councils to create "household charge collection teams", with hundreds of officials knocking on doors.

These Little Phils (or Hogan beags), will look you in the eye and say, "Phil sent me to break your legs", or words to that effect.

I wonder how many people will reply, in the words of Phil Hogan TD, when he was asked in February 2009 to take a 10 per cent voluntary cut in his €110,000 pay: "No. My personal circumstances don't allow that at the moment."

Phil is on about €170,000 now, plus generous expenses. Just saying.

Sunday Independent

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