Friday, 1 July 2011
Phone calls, lock-ins and offshore accounts - Ireland needs an ethics lesson
Michael Healy Rae is in trouble this week over revelations that he received 3,636 votes from phone calls made in the Dáil when on RTÉ's Celebrities Go Wild show in 2007.
There is no suggestion that the Kerry TD or his father, Jackie, did anything illegal regarding these phone calls, but whoever made them it was certainly unethical and a shocking waste of citizens' money.
The amount involved in the Healy-Rae story is only €2,600, but the attitude that led to this latest scandal is at the heart of Ireland's current malaise.
As it happens I'm reading Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools at the moment, which details the unparalleled economic catastrophe that has happened in Ireland in recent years.
Part of the book deals with widespread corruption in the banking sector and related professions, massive tax evasion and the total failure of regulators and successive governments to crack down on white collar crime and to stop the banks' insane lending practices during the Celtic Tiger.
Among the people who cheated the state out of over €2 billion in tax on deposits using dodgy offshore accounts was none other than the most powerful man in the state, Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, who was described as a 'patriot to his fingertips' by his protege, Bertie Ahern.
Also, this week, TG4 repeated the Scannal programme about the National Irish Bank deposit theft scandal. Basically, NIB stole money from their customers in the 1990s, as revealed by journalists Charlie Bird and George Hook.
The programme includes an interview with then Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy, who actually tried to downplay the robbery, saying that the monies involved only amounted to a tiny percentage of NIB's overall deposits.
PD Leader Mary Harney promised a swift investigation into the scandal, which in the end took six years to complete. No one was ever prosecuted over these events, just as no one has been charged in relation to seriously questionable practices in the banks during and after the Celtic Tiger property boom.
'Cute hoors', 'gombeens', 'stroke politics'- these are terms much in use in recent years to describe petty and not so petty corruption in Irish life.
Ireland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International, and we are spared the corrosive 'baksheesh' corruption found in many countries.
However, our brand of corruption tends to manifest itself in the blind eye turned to the illegal and the unethical, and our sneaking regard for cute hoors and 'insiders' who can get ahead through scratching backs.
This behavior is not all about high-powered officials and backroom deals, and may be happening in a place near you. It isn't always simply about gaining some advantage or privilege, the knowledge that you're on the inside track can be reward enough in itself.
Take one mundane example, the humble lock-in. In towns and villages throughout the country, there are pubs that flout the law by serving long after closing time. Many people in the area know this, but yet the gardaí turn a blind eye.
Of course not every pub can serve after hours, this privilege is restricted to a chosen few, the insiders, the people with the right contacts.
Ireland's antiquated closing times contribute to this problem, but instead of doing the sensible and mature thing - liberalising opening hours, we go for the cute hoor approach which sees the majority obeying the law and the insiders hovering above it.
Given a choice of allowing all pubs to set their own hours or breaking the law to get a late drink, I would not be surprised if some preferred the latter. There is, after all, a certain childish excitement in knowing that you are a member of a select group that can do something against the rules and get away with it.
It's a similar story with our tax, planning and banking systems, the plebs go by the rules and the gombeens get around them with impunity, always trying to get one up on 'them' – sometimes identified to as the government, 'Dublin', the media etc, but in reality their fellow citizens.
They're even able to bankrupt an entire country, forcing hundreds of thousands on to dole queues and emigrant airplanes with no real consequences for themselves.
Cute hoors can get elected to the Dáil because they can get some goodies for voters from central government, while neatly sidestepping the blame for the massive unemployment and spending cuts in their constituencies caused by governments they fully supported.
Another term used in relation to the economy is the 'invisible hand of the market'. In Ireland the invisible hand is the one that protects the cute hoors from the law, the one that covers our eyes to the corrupting anti-democratic influence of all donations to political parties.
There was a lot of blather about 'maturity' during the British Queen's recent visit – a real sign of maturity would be for us to end the power of the gombeens and cute hoors by ending our tolerance of their behavior across all levels of society.