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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
MY first job after leaving college was in customer service, listening to people ranting and raving down a phone line for most of the day.
Occasionally, and usually for the most trivial of reasons, a particularly incensed customer would call and proceed to loudly berate me at glass-shattering decibels, necessitating the use of my emergency get-out-of-jail excuse, which I deployed in desperation if the usual bland platitudes fell on deaf ears.
"I’m not going to try to defend the indefensible," I’d simper, whenever I could get a word in edgeways.
The beauty of the line was that frothing-at-the-mouth customers, who had previously been demanding all sorts of convoluted explanations for whatever catastrophe had befallen them, were immediately stymied in their efforts to find out why the service had been so diabolically bad.
I didn’t have to bother trying to explain the company’s ineptitude, as it was patently too awful to even fathom, and people, no matter how aggrieved, generally felt a bit stupid continuing to shout at someone who was meekly agreeing with their tirade of complaints.
Invariably, customers’ ire would quickly abate and they would conclude the call by thanking me for being so helpful even though I’d been of no assistance at all.
I thought of my trusty excuse again as I listened to Mick Wallace deliver his mea culpa in the Dáil last week, in which he too vowed that he would not attempt to defend the indefensible.
Unfortunately for Wallace, the line which stood me in such good stead during my brief stint as a customer service agent doesn’t work quite so well when trying to explain away his company’s unpaid €2.1m Vat settlement with the Revenue Commissioners.
Wallace, most definitely, still has questions to answer and he’ll have to do a lot better than his wobbly-voiced vow to continue to serve the people of Co Wexford and his defiant challenge to those TDs without any sin to cast the first stone.
Wallace entered the history books when he announced his Dáil candidacy less than two weeks before last year’s general election and romped home with over 13,000 first preference votes, having barely bothered canvassing.
He ran on a platform of having no platform — other than he would not spend time fixing potholes and was not going to make outlandish promises that he had no realistic hope of delivering.
He was, he said, just going to do his best and people accepted that — probably because the evidence of his previous efforts, namely the state-of-the-art €6m football stadium he built at the edge of Wexford town, was plain for all to see.
In an election when many establishment politicians were greeted with naked contempt on people’s doorsteps, Wallace, the straight-talking anti-politician, hoovered up votes by simply looking and sounding different.
He promised a new politics: More transparency, more openness, more honesty and more accountability.
However, it now transpires that what people have gotten is more of the same, with Wallace’s reaction to the revelations bearing a remarkable similarity to the usual self-serving deflections employed by other notorious politicians at times of personal, and professional, difficulty — an attempt to depict any criticism as a witch-hunt by the national press and the portrayal of his refusal to resign as a noble decision, reached after much soul searching, in response to a groundswell of ubiquitous local support.
Wallace, who last week said he had gone into politics "with a desire to work for social justice, to challenge the lack of fairness that exists in our society, and to strive to make this country a better place to live for all of us", has effectively been muzzled by his decision to remain in the Dáil.
How can he credibly continue to rail against cutbacks to Special Needs Assistants when his company’s unpaid tax liability would fund the salaries of over 100 SNAs for the next 12 months? How can he continue to complain about cuts to the health service when his company’s Vat settlement would keep the State’s only children’s hospice, Laura Lynn House, open for a full year? How can he maintain his continued opposition to a relatively meagre €100 household charge when his company’s Vat liability would pay the charge for approximately 50% of the households in Co Wexford? It’s all very well complaining about cuts to public services, but in order for those services to be provided, and maintained, then people, and companies, have to pay their taxes. The alternative is Greece.
His comrades in the Technical Group, nearly all of whom were initially loathe to make any criticism of their colleague, have also been left badly damaged by the debacle. Left-wing ideologues like Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly, neither of whom is usually stuck for a sound bite when confronted with a microphone and a tale of a tax-dodging developer, were suddenly tongue-tied.
Why? Because Wallace is a nice guy. Which may be the case, but isn’t exactly a defence that one sees trotted out in the courts very often when individuals are being prosecuted for failing to buy a TV licence, or business people are charged with failing to pay their local authority rates.
District courts all over the country are regularly crammed full of people charged with the most minor of thefts, while those who fail to meet risibly small financial obligations, like remembering to pay for a dog licence, often end up in Mountjoy.
Meanwhile, we have a TD in the Dáíl who has admitted to fiddling his VAT returns to the tune of €1.4m but who, it seems, will not be subject to any criminal sanction.
Wallace has admitted he was wrong, says he now regrets his actions and has promised to use half his Dáil salary to pay down the debt but, despite all of the sudden self-flagellation, he still remains decidedly vague on the finer details of the tax evasion.
For instance, having first intimated that he approached Revenue with his hands up, and his company’s books open in late 2010, it now seems as if he only did this after he learned of an imminent audit, meaning the under-declaration would inevitably have been discovered.
He has also failed to explain why he paid himself and his son Sasha almost €300,000 in 2008, double the amount both men drew down the previous year, when the company was beset by financial problems.
It’s true that Wallace isn’t the first politician to refuse to resign after a scandal, but it would amount to rank hypocrisy if he was given a free pass on these issues when others, like those named and shamed in various tribunal reports, are routinely castigated for their financial impropriety.
The argument that Wallace’s misdeeds pale into insignificance when compared to the kind of gross corruption that cost the country a €64bn bailout, and should therefore be ignored, also misses the point.
It should be clear by now that one doesn’t have to wear a tracksuit and brandish a weapon to act criminally and it’s about time white-collar crime, in all its many manifestations, was treated with the seriousness and opprobrium it deserves.
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