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To write about corruption in Ireland is rather like writing a definitive and final history of sunspots

Do you know who I feel sorriest for at the moment? It is Elaine Byrne, a brilliant journalist and political scientist who is writing a history of corruption in Ireland.

Now, far from me saying something nice about a former chum, I know almost nothing about her, other than that she writes a first-class column for the 'Irish Times', and to judge from her photograph, is aged 14.

Writing a book about corruption in Ireland is the most Sisyphean task that mankind has yet devised. Clearly, the very fact of Niall and his Nine Hostages suggests that improbity was a commonplace when the first proto-paddies waded ashore; and since cattle stealing was prized in Irish mythology, then respect for the property of others was clearly not. Moreover, it is a not inaccurate stereotype that the Irish revere integrity less than fealty, and law less than loyalty: and in both personal fealty and group loyalty lies the compost in which corruption flourishes.

However, worst of all for Elaine is the absolute certainty, that at the very moment she has, once and for all, finished her life's work, another great seething, simmering scandalous vault of public excrement will explode SPLAATTT!!! all over her manurescript.

This suggests she is A) insane, or B) Pollyanna. There might be a third line of defence, but I can't see what it could be. Defence B) rules itself out, because not even Pollyanna overdosing on E could cheerfully persist in writing a history of Irish corruption while the tribunals and bank inquiries continued to pour forth their revelations. Yet there is absolutely no sign of A) in any of Elaine's excellent columns.

To write about corruption in Ireland is rather like writing a definitive and final history of sunspots. For the ancient solar eruptions are travelling away from us, taking their secrets irretrievably with them; and every time the exhausted, gibbering sunspot author scribbles those two conclusive, elusive words, 'The End', another spout of thermonuclear lava explodes from the sun's surface, like a chameleon's tongue trying to ensnare Mercury, thus starting an entirely new weather-cycle on earth. So the sunspotologist starts another final chapter, yet again.

Now, I'm not entirely comfortable saying what follows, because, what with my accent and birthplace and so on, it might court accusations of being anti-Irish. Ah well: the reward for speaking one's mind is seldom to be elected the most popular boy in the class.

Nonetheless: precisely when was a respect for the norms which underwrite civil society elsewhere ever a feature of Irish life? Values such as a dignified respect for others, and a dutiful regard for the law: have they ever been the guidelines for how we conduct our public affairs? Or is midnight in any town on a Saturday a better measure?

Remember, the first Abbey riots were not over the scandalous portrayal in 'Playboy' of an Irish peasantry which reveres a young man for murdering his father: for that, it seems, was perfectly acceptable.

No, they were actually in protest at the use of that deeply immoral word, 'shift'. Synge was actually being remarkably prescient here, for the violent path taken to independence soon afterwards required a comparable disregard for both law and morality. Subsequent forms of national immorality became so grand and so institutionalised as to become virtually invisible.

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Thus the Fine Gael-backed Hospital Sweeps, which raised millions across the world, notionally for Irish hospitals, but a huge slice of which vanished into the bank accounts of the McGrath family (whose primrose path was begun by Joe McGrath, gunman for Michael Collins).

Thus Eamon de Valera pocketed half the money he raised in the US for 'Ireland', and thereby founded the 'Irish Press'. Even Labour managed to have its own little founding scandal, with James Larkin embezzling union funds and then fleeing for America, before returning a hero. Nonetheless, the congenial myth endures of the pure gunman who kills for Ireland, yet is an otherwise virtuous and personally austere daily communicant.

But you cannot confine corruption like plutonium in a leak-proof container. Which is why the upper reaches of the IRA are staffed with millionaires. And are the presence in the Dail of Martin Ferris, Arthur Morgan, Beverley Flynn and Michael Lowry symptoms of a chaste electorate which prizes political virtue and cherishes public celibacy?

Hence the cheerful tradesman who swears he will turn up at 10am on Tuesday, when we wait in vain, and from whom we only hear two months hence. He is merely employing his version of the a la carte, exceptionalist morality by which so many Irish people live.

We all sin: but to publicly exempt oneself from any one part of the general moral code is like removing a plank from a ship's hull: others will then covertly remove their own moral planks and, in time, the vessel will inevitably founder.

So if Irish sovereignty were soon to perish, as well it might, why, the exemplary Elaine can finally scribble at the bottom of her 10,000-page tome: 'The End', before, crossing her fingers and closing her eyes, waiting for SPLAATTT!!!

kmyers@independent.ie


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