Folding up Fianna Fáil’s tent — and a political era

THE tent is coming down. And with that single move, Brian Cowen’s reputation as Taoiseach will inevitably go up.

Fianna Fáil’s annual fundraiser at the Galway Races had always been a source of controversy. Frequented by wealthy developers, who gladly forked out up to €4,000 for a table, the tent led to claims that Fianna Fáil was far too close to the construction industry.

That was hardly a new charge. Ever since the 1960s, when Fianna Fáil established the infamous “Taca” organisation to secure funds from wealthy businessmen, the party had faced accusations of aiding and abetting developers to build their bank balances. In return, the accusations went, the developers helped build Fianna Fáil’s bank balance. The party and developers were seen as being arm-in-arm long before Galway came round.

But the tent helped ensure the image stuck.

Every year, the party would face questions about the fundraiser. It didn’t help that some of their guests had, well, colourful histories.

They included the Bailey brothers, Michael and Tom, whose firm, Bovale Developments, made the largest tax settlement with the Revenue Commissioners in the history of the state in 2006, paying more than €22 million in unpaid taxes, fines and interest.

Just for good measure, the interim report of the planning tribunal in 2002 found that Michael Bailey had made a corrupt payment — ie a bribe — to former Fianna Fáil minister Ray Burke. In addition, both brothers were found to have obstructed the tribunal.

Despite the damage such guests were doing to the party’s image however, Bertie Ahern repeatedly defended the tent.

This led to frequent attacks in the Dáil. In 2000, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, never Mr Ahern’s favourite person, memorably described his vision of what happened in the tent: “The Taoiseach sits in the Fianna Fáil marquee at the Galway Races like a feudal sheikh in his tent and greets the millionaires and rich and powerful people who enter.”

Mr Higgins suggested it would be better for Mr Ahern “to locate Fianna Fáil’s plush marquee in the middle of some deprived working-class communities where he could listen to the views of ordinary people who do not have the type of access millionaires have to him and his ministers”.

Mr Higgins went on to claim that cronyism had developed between leading politicians and the representatives of big business, corrupting Irish politics in the process.

In truth, the “access” the developers had was probably overplayed. It’s debatable just how comfortable any businessman would feel lobbying a politician in so public a venue. Perception was as much the problem as what really went on.

The then arts minister, Seamus Brennan, admitted last year the party should review the event simply because its negative publicity far outweighed its fundraising value. “It has become a lightning rod,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it — it’s an open, transparent fundraiser and people pay a few bob to have a meal and a bit of fun. But given it’s been such an issue, we should review it.”

Sure enough, Brian Cowen has stamped his mark early as party leader by announcing the fundraiser won’t go ahead this year. A review of the party’s organisation, including fundraising, is being carried out, and Galway is on hold until that review is completed. It probably won’t return.

It’s unlikely this was a decision Mr Cowen arrived at overnight. Throughout the controversy engulfing Mr Ahern recently, Mr Cowen made a point of stressing his own probity, bluntly telling Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny in February, that “I don’t need lectures from you on my standards”. It’s likely he had been considering the tent for some time.

The benefit, though, is immediate. After a week in which he found himself in a self-created mess over his use of the F-word, this move will create much more positive publicity.

But to scrap the tent so quickly — just a fortnight after succeeding Mr Ahern — raises an interesting question. In public, Mr Cowen defended Mr Ahern time and again, famously saying Mr Ahern was “not incorrect” in taking money from businessmen. But one wonders now what he thought in private.


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