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Are we really that bad? The Irish Times, ethical standards, the survival of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government and the ‘failings’ of the Irish people. October 13, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics, Labour Party, Sinn Féin.
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The reason neither Labour nor Fine Gael went for the metaphorical jugular with Bertie Ahern has today become clear. This was because they must have tested the water and realised the issue was pure poison for them with the general public. How else to read the remarkably muted manner in which they acted over the past three weeks? Sure, there were the rhetorical flourishes of ‘time to go’, ‘resignation’. But nothing that could be seen as an all out sustained attack. And how else to read the polls today which Fianna Fáil rise to 39% – up 8%, and Fine Gael and Labour down 2% and 4% respectively?

And why not? Because, although such rhetoric stiffened the sinews of the faithful it did nothing to impress a public which while clear that it regarded Ahern as having acted in an inappropriate manner saw no good reason to pull down a government.

It’s the old problem for the opposition. During times of economic plenty, when storm clouds threaten the horizon the tendency is to stick with the known. Fianna Fáil and the PDs are the know, the safe, the comfortable. Ahern might well have made mistakes, but better to forgive him those than jump to the unknown.

What is remarkable is the way in which the public has rallied behind Fianna Fáil and the PDs. The slow leaking of votes to Sinn Féin and the Independents has been stymied, even reversed. The soft FF vote has come home, at  least for now. Truly Enda and Pat must rue the day this particular debacle hit the headlines because it solidifies and expands support for the government parties at a time when previously the tendency had been to see it soften. Another case of unintended consequence.

But more to the point there have to be serious questions about the way this was used tactically by the opposition. Rather than  adopting their rhetorical outrage they would have been better to take a more pragmatic approach. I’ve previously noted that it is a pity there is no censure or impeachment process in Irish politics south of the border. Such a process would, at the least, provide an opportunity for an expression of the public disquiet over the loans/gifts. But for such a process to be put in place we would need an opposition that didn’t react to every issue with the rhetoric of outrage but instead the reality of working to strengthen ethical standards. The PDs have cottoned onto this, albeit somewhat tardily, by calling for codes of conduct to cover all donations. I applaud them for that and wish they’d done it sooner.

That is the correct way to deal with this, rather than waving ones arms about and ramping up the rhetoric in a political environment where people either don’t care or don’t believe it’s a resigning matter. But it wasn’t just the opposition. Last Saturday’s Irish Times [subscription required] noted the paradox at the heart of the matter. Having in an earlier editorial pondered how Mary Harney would have dealt with this (implicitly suggesting that she might resign), it then accepted that she would probably have acted in precisely the same way as McDowell. Now that’s called having your cake and eating it…

But then today under the heading ‘A poor reflection on ourselves’ it asks ‘what sort of a people are we? Now we know’. Er…no, we don’t actually. Or rather the answer isn’t the cut and dried (or perhaps cut and paste) simplistic analysis that the IT indulges in when it says ‘the electorate, it appears, after 10 years of tribunals into various forms of corrupt payments, can set up a glass wal between this Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil, to distinguish between £8K from friends as distinct from £8 million to his mentor, Charles Haughey’.

Yes, the electorate can. Because the circumstances are not the same. Because there is no pattern of payments over years. Because, despite what others state as fact, personal issues do enter into the equation, and because the issues in regard to the Ahern gift/loans did not breach then existing ethical guidelines. I’ve said before it’s a figleaf, but in the absence of new information – which were it available it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t have seeped into the public domain by now – suffices. The IT continues that ‘the culture of nods and winks and looking the other way is alive and well in Irish democracy. Among a significant sector, however, it reinforces the case that the public interest requires vigilance, investigation and continuing scrutiny…if the rest of us ‘look the other way’, it won’t be long before the culture of corruption engendered by Mr. Haughey will resurface. But regrettably, this poll would indicate that this does not seem to matter’.

I find the last sentences remarkable. There is little or no chance of the Haughey era style of payments returning. The IT amongst others fought doughtily to see that new codes were implemented, which they were – in fairness by one B. Ahern amongst others. The Progressive Democrats have already indicated that they’re pushing for new codes which will prevent precisely the sort of gift/loans we have heard about being concealed, or perhaps even permitted. So what is this about? A typical lash at the Irish people for not being a ‘better’ Irish people. I fear so.

Nor is there any distinction recognised between those like myself, who argue for the highest standards in public office and yet are able to see a reason for not implementing the ultimate sanction on Ahern, and those who are genuinely unable to see an ethical issue at the heart of this affair . To my mind there is no apology necessary for being able to distinguish between differing shades of black white and gray. And it’s somewhat unreasonable for the IT to clamber to the moral high ground in the context of the destruction of evidence leaked from a tribunal established to investigate just these issues. I can understand their rationale for publicising the information, I share it to some degree, but I can also see how this will prejudice others from putting evidence before such tribunals in the future for fear of just this chain of events being repeated. So less absolutism please. The world is a vastly more complex and different place than the black 10 pt. Times New Roman on the top left hand of page 19 of the Irish Times appears to believe it is…

And there’s no point in talking about the low standards of the electorate of the Republic to corruption. Ahern is patently not a man driven by personal avarice or greed – indeed it was almost touching to see last weekend how Garret Fitzgerald had to underscore that while tut-tutting at the loans/gifts. But the point is that the electorate are actually entirely rational and don’t have low standards.

Running a state is a serious business. The electorate, for all the gripes, appreciate that. Despite their unease with his actions they too can see the illogicality of forcing a man from office because of anomalous behaviour when no codes existed (although despite the polls I believe Ahern is damaged, and there will be a long term consequences for his reputation). That’s a lesson the opposition should take to heart, as David Cameron has done in Westminster, that sometimes it is by proposing higher standards in a constructive fashion rather than attacking and then not attacking in a nakedly partisan fashion that real political capital can be earned.

Terry Prone made an interesting point about the government this morning on the Pat Kenny show on RTÉ (and incidentally Prone is a fascinating character in herself with a sharp intelligence), that it has made them more ‘interesting’, a real problem when a lack-lustre opposition is unable to appear coherent enough. Who looks more human, outside the bubble that most of us who are interested in these things to an almost excessive degree exist within, Enda or Bertie? Michael or Pat?

These are tough days for the opposition, despite the chaff which will be put out by the usual suspects. They’re less so for the Government, probably to their surprise and delight. But remarkably in amongst the rhetoric the actual standards implemented and applied to our political class are rising – not that one would know it.

Sometimes things actually do improve…

Comments»

1. JC Skinner - October 13, 2006

It makes me want to cry sometimes, how people in this country are prepared to ‘rally behind’ such a discredited government.
Should the opposition take the blame for failing to make the mud stick? I don’t think so. We need to look at our nation’s collective values to see why we tolerate such a government.

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2. WorldbyStorm - October 13, 2006

I’m not sure that’s the lesson I would draw. Firstly we can consider the issue of ‘discredited’ in two ways. Firstly issues of process or management – waiting lists etc which may or may not be amenable to change under the right direction. Secondly issues of malfeasance or corruption. How many examples of those can you honestly state have come to light? I’m not certain I can think of any per se say since 2002. Even the current example of inappropriate behaviour is largely a storm in a teacup, and mud should stick if there is a sufficiently good case for it to do so. So therefore it’s not a case of ‘tolerating’ because for example issues of process have generally arisen over the lifetime of the government, and there has been no opportunity for the electorate to exercise their franchise, and nor should there have been as long as the government held a majority. That’s not to say the government should remain immune from attacks on it’s record, just to say that the issues are not as cut and dried as some would present them. And who has the job of putting the governments record up for examination – why the opposition. So really it does remain their job.

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3. JC Skinner - October 13, 2006

Whether laws were broken or not (and they were by some, I’m fairly convinced), there is no end of evidence of the dodgy car salesman nature of our current cabinet.
We have a Minister who hired his pal on E1,200 a day to do his PR, when he already had numerous PR people in his department.
We have a Taoiseach holding whiprounds with shadowy businessmen to fund his lifestyle, while saving money but not in a bank account.
I wouldn’t trust any of them to mind my coat, never mind run my country.
The problem I identify is their brass neck. They refuse to resign even when found out. In other European countries, people like Cullen or Bertie would have to fall on their swords. But here, they just hang on in there and hope for the bad news to pass.
My worry is the reason that the opposition don’t hold them to account is because historically their standards are nearly as low, and because they suspect that if they overplay the ethics card, they would fall foul of it themselves in future.
Perhaps the public suspect this too – hence the ‘better the devil you know’ poll results.

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4. WorldbyStorm - October 13, 2006

Again, it’s difficult to know if that’s a correct assessment. I agree with you that there may well be a ‘plague on both their houses’ mindset, but are we seriously worse than France, or Italy or even the UK. Consider the shennigans re at least two Ministers who were allowed back into the UK cabinet only to resign again. To be honest I’m not sure how, beyond codifying what is and what is not acceptable, this can be improved. And surely the point re Ahern is that he wasn’t Taoiseach at the time this occurred and there were no formalised rules pertaining to these activities at the time. Had it happened yesterday he’d be history. Another thought that strikes me is that we’re dealing with humans with all the attendant foibles. That’s not an excuse, but it does show up the necessity to define the parameters of ethical behaviour and standards very clearly.

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5. JC Skinner - October 13, 2006

Are we worse? Yes. And it runs from top down throughout the nation. I recall the OECD examining Ireland and concluding we were one of the most corrupt places in Europe a few years back.
To me it doesn’t matter if Bertie had been in secondary school when he passed the hat around the businessmen. It’s indicative of his ethics.
I think the public are past caring. They endemically assume the majority of politicians to be on the make. Generally, they’re right to do so too.

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6. WorldbyStorm - October 13, 2006

But is it truly indicative of his ethics? The man makes two errors of judgement in his life (that we know of). Is that sufficient to damn him in your eyes. Now granted, I’m not Minister of Finance – nor have I been through the collapse of my marriage – yet, but I do have loans which…hmmm…I’ll probably do my best to repay someday…perhaps…when Cedar Lounge Revolution Towers is sited in the city centre…maybe… What does that tell you of my ethics?

My point being that your view is IMHO far too gloomy. I’m something of a cynic, and I’ve noted that a framework is often required to ensure better behaviour, but really, I don’t believe most or even the majority of Irish politicians are on the make (other than in the most petty fashion through influence) and I’ve been around quite a while now. Actually I’m 41 next week. Cash, no cheques…

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7. JC Skinner - October 13, 2006

Of course it is indicative of his ethics. He could have gone to the bank for a loan like the rest of us would. But he didn’t even have a bank account. Repeat: The Minister for FINANCE did not have a bank account. Instead he went the Champagne Charlie route and tapped up some businessmen for money.
I just fear that the public, like yourself, have come to accept the venal standards of our political class. And petty corruption is still corruption, incidentally.

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8. joemomma - October 14, 2006

I’m largely in agreement with JC Skinner on this one. The fact is that our political culture historically has involved the transfer of large sums of money between businessmen and politicians. I think this is inherently a corrupt system, but the ethical norms in effect do allow for such transfers in the form of political donations. Anything outside of that scope, in my view, should be presumed to be dodgy.

Sure, it’s petty compared to the Berlusconis of this world, but it’s also pervasive and deeply entrenched. It has been internalised to such an extent that it’s not possible to directly link payments received to favours granted. Businessmen simply think it’s only natural that they should be bankrolling well-paid government ministers, just as they would consider it only natural that a government minister would want to pursue policies which protect their interests.

I don’t believe that most politicians are “on the take” in the sense of taking money in exchange for specific decisions. However this does not mean that the Bertie saga does not highlight a corruption in our political culture.

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9. WorldbyStorm - October 14, 2006

And I don’t disagree that such things have/are happening joemomma. But my central point remains that in comparison to the 1980s there has been a radical and real improvement. Local politics of which I have some experience of through community activism is much much cleaner. National politics is under such a spotlight that generally all but the most minor indiscretions are targetted by the media. The internalisation of it has been accompanied by the constriction of the space in which such things can occur. Perfect? By no means, but a change for the better, absolutely. And more can and must be done.

And then ‘corruption’ within the political culture becomes more an expression of the systemic nature of the political culture (and arguably the nature of an ‘advanced democracy’ i.e. the interface between business and politics, special interest groups and so on rather than simple venality on the part of those involved, or alternatively it becomes an event which happens on the margins or gray areas where legislation doesn’t exist. As I said all along the gift/donations were highly inappropriate but a mechanism between an apology and a resignation would be most suitable.

On a slightly different issue, I’ve always been intrigued by the aversion on the part of the Green party (and others) to ultimately work in coalition with FF, albeit a reconstructed FF – such as will be handed to us once this generation of politicians moves on (which will be soon). It’s very difficult to underestimate the appetite for power on the part of FF which wedded to a serious ideological dynamic, as I know the Greens have, could actually implement some serious change.

Perhaps 2012?

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10. WorldbyStorm - October 14, 2006

Incidentally Transparency International’s 2005 survey on global corruption places us at 7.4 (jointly with Belgium). TI considers that 5 is the borderline figure which distinguishes between countries with or without serious corruption problems. The surveys are composites of those taken by various anti-corruption watchdogs…

Could be better, unquestionably, cause for lashing ourselves for our Irish exceptionalism, absolutely not…

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11. JC Skinner - October 14, 2006

Well, in 1995, we had a rating of 8.57 and were in the top eleven least corrupt countries – or to be more accurate, we were perceived as such by our national analysts.
The problem with the corruption PERCEPTIONS index is obvious. It measures perceptions not actual corruption.
But even if we go with it, we’ve got worse over the last decade by this benchmark.

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12. tosser - October 14, 2006

😕

Don’t you mean that we’re perceived by our national analysts to have gotten worse over the last decade?

It’s not the same thing at all, and may well be a positive finding (if it means our national analysts have become more astute in identifying corruption).

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13. Karole - October 15, 2006

Excellent post. Your critique of Friday’s Irish Times editorial is accurate. The polls showing higher ratings for FF and the PD’s and drops for the opposition show that, when forced by a potentially dangerous political crisis to put their minds to thinking in a concrete manner about who is best to run the country, the opposition looked a clear second best. Sure, people think Bertie shouldn’t have taken the money, but as you point out there are clear differences with what Haughey did. There was no long pattern of payments, no personal avarice, no reticence in dealing with tribunals, and so on. Bertie is not corrupt, in other words, and there is no evidence he ever has been. I’m glad to see a good man not being taken down over this.

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