The RTE Investigates programme looking at standards in public office left me shaking my head in bitter disillusionment. I know these characters exist. I know the majority of people in politics are still good and hard working. However, the bare faced cheek and dim witted approach these guys took suggests that the problem is deeper. It is rooted in the belief that they are playing a game and it’s all grand once you know how to pull a fast one.
I thought a lot of that was gone. While corruption might always be present where there is power one might expect that after all that has happened in Ireland these guys would be a little more ashamed and self aware. The winks and sly smiles only confirm that these are the very men who think they are one step ahead. Getting one over on their rivals. Playing the game. Making a buck.
In the late ’90s I was involved in Fianna Fail when the tribunals were raging and media breaking stories. After the Ray Burke story broke I sat in the foyer of the Longford Arms hotel with former Senator Mickey Doherty. None of us were friendly with Burke but we were talking about the damage the story was doing. I was annoyed but Mickey seemed to be just totally taken aback by it all. He said ‘I never saw anything like it. I mean you might help someone out with something and the following Christmas they might give you a bottle of whiskey but that’s about it.’
There has always been this division in politics. The guys who play by the rules and then the other guys who think they are smarter than that. After a while if you stay honest they begin to view you as a bit of a fool. Some kind of innocent. Not the real wheeler dealer. They are smart enough to ensure they keep their activities out of sight of those who might ‘rat’ them out. You might hear a rumour but they will never let you near their inner circle to see what’s actually going on unless you are made of the same attitude.
We need to face this problem. We need to tackle corruption. However, we need more than to just scream every time we see something happen. It is all too easy to use corruption as a political football. That helps nobody. When somebody who is not corrupt is accused of it then it only serves to make people think that others are innocent too. When the term is bandied about willy nilly in a ‘they’re all at it’ approach it gives cover to the real culprits that we need to root out.
I have never been a fan of the Mahon tribunal report. The McCracken and Flood reports laid down criteria on donations. However Mahon expanded this and ended up being utterly un-implementable unless we moved to full state funding of political parties and a complete ban on any private fundraising. After this the body politic lost its way. We desperately need to find it again. Strict and clear criteria need to be established as to what is and is not acceptable when seeking funds. SIPO and legislation must be the basis for this as opposed to what ended up coming from Mahon.
Politicians can and must grasp this nettle. For too long they have feared repercussions. No more can that be accepted. We need a range of censures. One might possibly overlook a declaration of something very small on a form and be reprimanded in a small way. However taking part in votes where you know you have a conflict of interest should carry a severe penalty.
Openly soliciting bribes should not only result in the loss of your seat but also criminal charges. Investigations like this challenge us as a society. It is normal to feel disheartened, disillusioned and fed up. Having spent all my life with politicians this is just the kind of nonsense that makes you want to walk away forever.
But we can’t. It’s our system and we must fight for it. We cannot leave it to chancers and spoofers to use as a little sideline. There are many good people in politics but they must now stand up and be counted even if that has consequences for them or those around them.
Johnny Fallon – Southern Editor –