Fintan O’Toole: “Power corrupts, but so does a sense of powerlessness”

Bearing in mind some of the moral issues raised by the proposed boycott of the Household Charge, Fintan O’Toole nails a few home truths in his Irish Times column (h/t to the peerless and sainted Olivia O’Leary on RTE’s Drivetime this evening):

We can’t take refuge, either, in comforting explanations for this deep-rooted amorality. The pat answer would be to link it to the decline of religion and in particular of the authority of institutional Catholicism. But the facts don’t support this thesis: Haughey came to power in 1979, when church control was still in its prime. He, Reynolds and Ahern governed as conservative and devout Catholics.

So what does account for the amorality? Powerlessness, surely. Power corrupts, but so does a sense of powerlessness. Civic virtue comes from a belief in both rights and responsibilities, but too many Irish people don’t really believe they have either the rights or the duties of citizens. They don’t have the right to public services – so they wheedle with TDs to get them. Why, then, would they demand high standards of probity from those politicians? If they weren’t cunning enough to pull strings and extract favours, what use would they be?

What it all means is that there’s really no point in making one or two cosmetic reforms in response to Mahon. Systemic corruption demands systemic change. And the purpose of that change has to be the wholesale reinvention of Irish democracy. Irish people won’t stop wheedling and nodding and winking until they believe they really have the power to shape the public realm in which they live.

Powerlessness has made us a nation of chancers. It lets us off the hook – someone else is always in charge: the Brits, the church, Fianna Fáil, Frankfurt. The one chance we’ve never taken collectively is the risk of believing that we have full responsibility for ourselves and each other. Unless we demand the creation of a real republic – built the hard way, from the bottom up – we will breed many more Berties.[Emphasis added]


  • Alias

    Overblown histrionics. Out of 166 TDs, Mahon found that a handful of them might have been of questionable character, but he couldn’t be sure about this he could be sure that the small sums involved didn’t involve any abuse of public revenue.

    That’s a remarkable percentage of honest politicians compared to any other country and shows equally remarkable good judgement from the public.

    Still, the Irish Times predictably sees it as another opportunity to undermine the Irish nation and its state…

  • Greenflag

    ‘ He (Haughey ), Reynolds and Ahern governed as conservative and devout Catholics.’

    They may have governed as but as the man said never mind what they say just watch what they do and certainly in the case of CJ & Bertie ‘practising ‘ actual catholicism was a theory and did’nt enter an iota into their ‘financial ‘ and personal lives but then the same can be said about many members of the RC Church hierarchy as well . Albert Reynolds lost power because of the Whelehan / Brendan Smyth/paedophile priest scandal .

    O’Toole lays it on a bit thick but he is right in stating that systemic corruption needs systemic change -not just in Ireland but across the Irish Sea as we have seen in recent years and even yesterday and even more so across the ‘pond’ where ‘democracy’ is just a contest about who can raise the the most money and plutocrats get to choose the nominee who will be their muppet in power until they too are cast off in favour of another 🙁

  • Alias

    He should start with systemic corruption of the news agenda at The Irish Times.

  • Alias
  • GoldenFleece

    “He should start with systemic corruption of the news agenda at The Irish Times.”

    Let me guess Alias, The Irish Times are part of the “West Brit” media cartel?

  • wee buns

    The Irish Times is pathetic – the editorial is quite often thrown in a scrunched up ball across the room in disgust at it’s center-right fawning – but it’s the only half decent paper we’ve got.

  • Mick Fealty

    Fintan may be a lot of things but centre right is generally not one of them. We’re seeing something like the ‘let’s kick the bids out’ frenzy the US has been in since Lehmans sank.

    Given the dreadfully comprehensive nature of the debt problem its easy to see why thats so tempting. The private debt in Ireland is largely a failure of regulation; but its also cultural.

    Looking at the UK for a moment; two money institutions that come out of this mess well are the Co-op Bank and the Nationwide Building Society.

    I’ve had an account with the latter since the early 80s so important familiar with the kinds of pressure they came under to mutualise. they didn’t, and accordingly have one of the best balance books in UK finance.

    Governance matters. It may not be sexy; but it still matters.

    There’s a story goes round of an NI civil servant seconded to Dublin when

  • Mick Fealty

    ….a group of them is discussing some major policy issue. after half an hour, there is a break in the conversation and then some says; “what are they doing over there?” meaning Britain/Westminister.

    Ireland no longer has the luxury of copying the smart boy across the way.

  • Billy Pilgrim


    ‘Let me guess…’


    A poor guess.

  • Harry Flashman

    The Irish Times has the same agenda as RTE and as the BBC and the Guardian in the UK.

    They all have the broadly centre-left, socially, and just as importantly economically, liberal agenda of their editorial staff and their core readership. This could be summed up as the university-educated, home-owning middle class, employed in the professions or the public-sector (as opposed to small farmers or self-employed businessmen), white liberals who hold precisely the same opinions on Europe, the US, taxation, the “national question”, sexual morality, race relations etc.

    In and of themselves these are not bad characteristics, quite the contrary, every society needs such a class, a society that doesn’t have them rapidly descends into populism and communal strife. But then the same could be said of most classes in society, remove one and you create a vacuum, when it gets unhealthy is when this one sector abrogates unto itself the idea that their concerns are the only important concerns and their outlook in life is the only acceptable, sensible option.

    Frequently a wee dose of right wing bloody mindedness or left wing street protest is what is required when things get too complacent. In a small, incestuous body politic like the Irish Republic where a self-selecting clique of perhaps half a thousand people control government, business, the arts, education, the media, the judiciary and politics these safety valves are not available.

    I suspect in the years to come the lack of these safety valves will result in an explosion, probably over something that no one saw coming (immigration or some such) and which initially the smugocracy will tut-tut about but that eventually will lead to a massive upheaval and hopefully blow in a much fresher breath of air into Irish society.

    Or perhaps not, after an initial outburst it will all sink back into the usual complacent lethargy.

  • wee buns

    Fin tan’s column (and a few others) justifies buying the paper but the editorial is consistently pro EU, pro FG and before the election, pro FF. Which sums up what’s wrong with southern politics, the centre is overcrowded with no discernible difference between FF & FG, and the media is in it with them.
    What need has there been for proper opposition/argument – when things don’t run like that, but rather by mutual back scratching?

    The ‘open secret’ of corrupt dealings found by Mahon differs in Ireland primarily by being more of an open ‘open secret’ than elsewhere.

    The mindset nonetheless holds creepy similarities to the abuse of youngsters by church run institutions, which was also to a large extent an open secret; a climate; a matter of consent by ‘willful blindness’ through obedience to the church…

    Finatn writes ‘’too many Irish people don’t really believe they have either the rights or the duties of citizens.’’

    Agreed, but he doesn’t ask why. He also expresses zero outrage at that fact.

    A nation of ‘chancers’ so we are then – a truthful yet simplistic insight. God forbid anybody wants to be caught actually feeling sorry for our collective selves – the scars of colonialism; abject poverty; tyranny of church etc – has produced a culture of fear.

    Is it not a disgrace that people feel little or no entitlement?
    That they are living halfway up mountains with no proper services (lifestyle choice of German hippies aside)?

    There is no culture of protest in the south, unlike in the north.

    Authority figures pounce on ‘troublemakers’ the instant people get angry or even ask for anything – so they generally go away quietly with their tails between their legs, and wonder how to wheedle instead. The Irish Times editorial has this same nasty authoritative tone that is never on the ordinary people’s side.

  • Harry Flashman

    “The ‘open secret’ of corrupt dealings found by Mahon differs in Ireland primarily by being more of an open ‘open secret’ than elsewhere.

    The mindset nonetheless holds creepy similarities to the abuse of youngsters by church run institutions, which was also to a large extent an open secret; a climate; a matter of consent by ‘willful blindness’ through obedience to the church…”

    When I made exactly this point at the time of the exposure of the church’s sex abuse I was shouted down. I said that the abuse that went on in state institutions in Ireland, orphanages, industrial schools, laundries whatever was public knowledge in Ireland and that a lot of the hysteria being generated was hypocritical cant.

    Equally when Mahon reported the usual suspects were on about how Fianna Fail were a disgrace and should all be behind bars as if widespread corruption in Ireland wasn’t as much of an accepted fact of life as the weather.

    It’s always the same in Ireland, the dodgy business is an open secret in which everyone is complicit and only when it is exposed by some event that perhaps goes too far does everyone start jumping up and down saying, like Captain Reynard in Rick’s Cafe, “how shocked! shocked I tell you!” to discover what has been going on.

    The Irish media is a disgrace, as far as I can see they have never exposed one single scandal in the Republic. The beef scandal was exposed by Yorkshire TV as I recall. I was involved in the meat business at the time and the steroid use and abuse of the intervention scheme was common knowledge but no one cared. It was only when the Brits exposed it did we all suddenly discover how shocked we all were.

    Similarly the church sex abuse was only revealed second hand when the RUC arrested Brendan Smyth, I don’t know how many abusive priests were collared by the Gardai prior to that but I dare say it wasn’t a large number.

    The planning inquiry came about if I am not wrong by an ad being placed in a Newry newspaper because the southern press wouldn’t touch it.

    Compare this to the much maligned British media. Look at how the Sunday Times exposed Cruddas and the Tories dinners for hire, how the Telegraph exposed MP’s expenses, how the foibles of the Royals are open season, how Major’s government was brought down. That’s what a media is supposed to do, not roll over and get its tummy rubbed by the establishment.

    Can anyone imagine a figure like Charles Haughey being prime minister and leader of the opposition in Britain for the best part of a quarter of a century, living the life he led and not a single newspaper investigating him?

    The southern media is an utter disgrace and Fintan O’Toole for all his protestation now is just as complicit as all the rest of them. He has been a part of the southern media establishment for a generation and had a platform to expose all this stuff by himself, he never did, he always waited for someone else to expose what he must have known about but said nothing and then suddenly he jumps up to the front of the bandwagon when it’s already safely on a roll.

    A bunch of gombeens the whole damn lot of ’em.

  • Alias

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying about the failure of the media and state authorities to investigate wrongdoing. The Irish Times was too busy taking revenue for full-page ads from property developers and banks offering giddy mortgages for its property supplement to bother investigating the events that it now complains about (after the revenue has dried up). But I don’t see Irish businesses in general as being unethical or corrupt. On the contrary, they’re standards-focused and trustworthy. But there are classes of industry where the culture is otherwise. The beef industry, which you mentioned was a good example. And whatever we may think of our gombeen political class, there simply isn’t any evidence to such a claim of systemic corruption (whatever an oddball judge with his own agenda may think).

  • Harry Flashman

    “The Irish Times was too busy taking revenue for full-page ads from property developers and banks offering giddy mortgages for its property supplement”

    Oddly enough one of the very few good campaigning journalists in the Irish media who screamed to the high heavens for decades about corruption and property development writes for the Irish Times; take a bow Frank McDonald, not that anyone ever listened to you.

    You want to find good investigative journalists in Ireland today? Don’t look at RTE (hopping on the church sex abuse scandal half a century too late and wrongly accusing a decent, honest priest) or the Irish Times. Look to the Independent, yes that much despised rag, sneered at by the Dublin 4 set, there’s where you will find out what’s really going on in Ireland today. Their crime coverage is second to none and Shane Ross is superb at eviscerating the Golden Circle.

    Alias, I have had few dealings with the Irish business sector but given that we know the beef industry, and by implication agriculture generally, was rotten to the core as were the construction and quarrying sector and the financial services sector I have to ask you what indigenous business sector in Ireland isn’t dodgy? Alcohol production I suppose, God help us.

    I ask in all innocence.

  • Alias

    “I have to ask you what indigenous business sector in Ireland isn’t dodgy?”

    Well, architects of course…

    Incidentally, at the time when Bertie was having his now infamous ‘dig-outs’, Ireland was ranked as the 11th least corrupt country in the world. It has since fallen to joint 16th place, alongside the UK. Yes, we’re now as corrupt as the UK is!

  • Harry Flashman

    The Transparency survey is very interesting however it must be borne in mind that it is based not on a scientific analysis but rather on the perception of investors.

    Ireland simply never featured on the radar of corrupt nations as its corruption was restricted to natives, ie foreign companies weren’t targetted as they are in countries like Indonesia or Nigeria.

    I too would never have regarded Ireland as a corrupt country in that sense but one has to say that by any objective analysis of what has gone on in Ireland over the past few decades one can only come to the conclusion that Irish society is massively corrupt and at an extremely high level.

    The UK has not seen the sort of corruption indulged in at head of government level that is routine in Ireland since Lloyd George. Additionally corrupt politicians and business men actually go to jail in the UK something that never happens in the Republic and which thus might add to the relative perceptions of corruption in the two countries.

  • Alias

    That would be a subjective analysis. There isn’t any objective and comparative analysis that I am aware of. I suppose you could compare the amount of fraud allegations made against businesses to Gardai compared to those made to the police forces of other countries.

    Also, Mahon Tribunal found no evidence of corruption at the “head of government level” at all. Indeed, it didn’t even accuse Mr Ahern of lying to it despite the misreporting in the media: it accused him of untruths (different meaning).

    I think there is political ‘corruption’ involved in holding the tribunal in the first place. Not just because it cost a quarter of a billion of taxpayers’ money but also because, as the Transparency Index pointed out, each percentage point that a country drops in its rankings cost that country’s economy an estimated 1 billion of investment.

    So we have no evidence of corruption but what we do have is a tribunal that fosters the perception that Ireland is a corrupt country.

    That is the context where I think the political class is corrupt: it does not promote the national interest but operates with the purpose of undermining it.

  • Harry Flashman

    I am a firm believer in trial by jury and I accept that in a strict legal definition Ahern wasn’t found guilty of corruption, but heaven help us his financial dealings stank to high heavens and if he wasn’t corrupt then he was just a very airheaded, incompetent, careless idiot, no one for a nano-second believes any of those latter adjectives applies to Ahern so by default we may assume the former is the case.

    Again I go back to my main point, how in the name of Jehova did he get away with that stuff? Was the entire Irish media asleep at the wheel or in his pocket?

    In Britain we found out about Cherie Blair’s apartment purchasing scheme, duck houses for MPs, Mandelsohn’s dig outs, Jeffrey Archer’s shenanigans, Jeremy Aitken’s Paris hotel bills all of it routinely discovered and devastating for the pols involved, while Ahern, Flynn, Haughey, and Lawlor sailed on serenely regularly topping their respective polls.

  • Alias

    Yup, can you name a corrupt politician that has been re-elected to the national parliament? I can’t.

    I’d see it as an expression of the citizen’s belief in due process, so it something to be admired rather than condemned. It is the imperative to convict in the court of public opinion and to punish, without due process, that is to be condemned.

    I gave Bertie Ahern the benefit of due process even though I dismissed his testimony as lacking credibility at the time. I don’t regret doing that. I’m pleased that others did it too.

    If there were specific allegations of corruption made against him and those allegations came from a credible source and had substantiating evidence then it would have been a case of demanding that he stepped aside without prejudice while legal due process was under way.

    However, it was simply a case of “Man has cash, and where did it come from?” Who cares where it came from? I don’t see that the state has any legitimate right to force a citizen to prove that he is innocent of a crime that he hasn’t even been accused of even if that isn’t the issue here.

    Where is the evidence of systemic corruption among the political class? There isn’t any. Out of 166 TDs and 60 senators, a tiny percentage was of dubious character and 2 served prison sentences.

    Sorry to disappoint, but that points to systemic virtuousness. The mass hysteria we now see engineered by the media is agenda-laden and sponsored. It damages the Irish national interest as it is designed to do.

    Now if you want to look at systemic corruption look no further than your own Assembly. Where else in Europe would you find such a collection of murderers, rabble-rousers, extortionists, money launderers, knee-cappers, smugglers, and all-round degenerates as the British government has deemed fit to hold public office?

  • Harry Flashman

    “The mass hysteria we now see engineered by the media is agenda-laden and sponsored.”

    I tip my cap to no man in my utter contempt for the regular bouts of mass hysteria whipped up in the Republic. I have often said before that the Joe Duffy show is worth listening to just to know what side to take on any issue, basically agin whatever 95% of the bleaters phoning in are in favour of, so I have some sympathy with your stance.

    However in a broader picture one cannot deny the sheer catastrophic situation facing Ireland today and to a large extent this can be put down to the shysters, gombeen men, sleeveens, gobshites and feckers who have run the government and business of the Irish Republic for the past generation or more.

    They did so with the supine connivance of one of the most passive media establishments in the democratic world, a media which only ever whips itself into its routine hysteria mode long after it was needed and to no obvious advantage.

  • Greenflag

    ‘They did so with the supine connivance of one of the most passive media establishments in the democratic world’

    Who said News of the World was’nt at the apex of reporting integrity ?

    Glass houses and stones HF .

  • Greenflag

    Alias ,

    ‘Yes, we’re now as corrupt as the UK is!’

    No we’re not .Slightly worse in fact from the 2011 Transparency International figures . Ireland has dropped from 14th to joint 19th with Belgium whereas the UK has improved from 20th last year to joint 16th with Barbados and Austria .
    The USA continues to decline now 24th and Italy at 69th and Greece at 80th prove that just because you are a member of the Eurozone doesn’t mean you can’t be more corrupt than say Botswana (30th) or Israel (36th) Ghana (64) or South Africa (65)

  • Harry Flashman

    “Who said News of the World was’nt at the apex of reporting integrity ?”

    No idea, but I’ll tell you this much; for all its sins News International has smoked out quite a few crooked politicians in their day and put manners on a complacent establishment which is a damn sight more than you can say for most of the Irish media.

    Perhaps that’s why the establishment are so keen to stick the boot into Murdoch.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Glass houses and stones HF .”

    What do you mean?