Reputations and politics in ruin but the corruption remains the same

The cost reflected the manner in which the state has been run for decades, writes Michael Clifford.

WAS it worth it? When the smoke clears and the result analysed to death, when everybody has moved on, the question will hang in the air at a time of living austerely.

Was it worth it?

The final report of the Payments for Planning Tribunal is an indictment on whole swathes of public life in this country. The manner by which the body politic plans for the future is indicted. A system where part-time politicians are vested with the power to make overnight millionaires has been shown to be hopelessly compromised. Developers caught up in the inquiry have been labelled corrupting influences on the body politic.

And a former Taoiseach, once hailed the greatest politician of his generation, has been exposed as a grubby, grabbing man who showed utter contempt for an inquiry that was appointed by parliament. For those who see Ahern as a handy repository for all the anger, it should be remembered that his brand of politics was rewarded again and again by the electorate.

The findings against Ahern dominate the headlines, but he’s already a beaten docket. Most people have made up their minds about him. His premiership is now viewed by many as a dung heap, out of which the peace process shines like a crazy diamond. The findings that he repeatedly gave unbelievable evidence will merely reinforce views that have hardened since the collapse of the economy.

Still, it’s a shocking indictment. Repeatedly, the phrase pops up: “The tribunal rejects Mr Ahern’s evidence...” His fabled dig-outs and whiparound are exposed as carefully woven webs of lies.

“The tribunal rejected the evidence of Mr Ahern, and of others, to the effect that such collections had taken place and were the source of funds lodged to Mr Ahern’s account...” Again and again, it’s not just Ahern’s evidence that is rejected, but that of over two dozen friends of his who gave supporting testimony. The word that screams out from such findings is conspiracy. How could so many have spewed out so much gunk, on oath, without a degree of organisation?

And what of the anorak man? Where would such a cuddly man-o‘-the-people get his hands on the stg£25,000 that the inquiry rules he lodged to his account? Where did he get the $45,000? Did some sugar daddy wing his way across the Atlantic with a lucky bag?

Instead of looking forward to a well-padded retirement, Ahern’s horizons are stained with further grief. Public disgrace is likely to be his lot from here on in.

The report poses questions for those who have risen to the top of Fianna Fáil.

Repeatedly, while Ahern was giving his bizarre evidence, his acolytes at cabinet rushed the media ramparts to defend the ridiculous. In doing so, they frequently took potshots at the tribunal for media consumption.

Both Willie O’Dea and Dick Roche accused the inquiry of bias. If taken seriously, such a charge would paint the three judges as corrupt. But this stuff was designed for nothing more than creating an impression in the crude court of public opinion. The tribunal members took note of what was afoot.

“At a time when this tribunal was inquiring into matters relating to Mr Bertie Ahern, the then Taoiseach, it came under sustained and virulent attack from a number of senior government ministers who questioned, inter alia, the legality of its inquiries as well as the integrity of its members... there appears little doubt but that the objective of these extraordinary and unprecedented attacks on the tribunal was to undermine the efficient conduct of the tribunal’s inquiries, erode its independence and collapse its inquiry into that individual.”

Micheál Martin, O’Dea and Éamon Ó Cuív all remain on from those days.

Back then, when Ahern was an electoral asset, they rushed to his defence, whatever the cost to the integrity of the office. Now he is a liability. The same applies to Pádraig Flynn, who has been branded a crook over his trousered 50 grand.

Beyond the grasping Ahern and Flynn, the report is a further indictment of the planning process. A number of councillors are deemed to have accepted corrupt payments. Frank Dunlop emerges as somebody at the nexus of wholesale corruption. Two developers, Owen O’Callaghan and Monarch Properties — as represented by four of its executives — are ruled to have been corrupting influences on Dublin County Council. “The system adopted by Monarch was the anti-thesis of democracy, and was in reality intended to corrupt councillors by way of inducement,” the report states.

What emerges through the corruption, and even within the legitimate parameters of the system, is an age-old strand of crony capitalism. Developers and councillors find themselves with a confluence of interests based around money. Therein, there is precious little to distinguish a legitimate political donation from a bribe. The “common good”, that which under law is supposed to be the cornerstone of planning, is sacrificed on the alter of greed.

Developers make vast fortunes through leading planning by the nose, while councillors mortgage the future of proper planning for a relative pittance. It has long been thus, and the tribunal report is unlikely to upset the status quo. In this regard, Fine Gael are but a mirror image of Fianna Fáil.

Was it worth it? No inquiry of this nature is worth €300m and counting. But what was the alternative?

When it was set up in 1997, Ahern’s government designed the broad terms of reference to lead it out into a vast ocean where it might sink under the weight of huge costs and public cynicism. His finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, made no provision at the outset to curtail lawyers’ fees in the event of the inquiry persisting beyond a few months. The fees themselves were merely a product of a legal system that has long since been morally corrupted by money.

With such a start in life, there was only one way this inquiry was going to grow. And so it did, meandering around, finding corruption under every stone and eventually turning on the man who had been at the head of the government which had been forced to set it up.

Ultimately, the cost reflected the manner in which the state has been run for decades, all the way to its current station.

We will thankfully never see the likes of this tribunal again. The tragedy is that, despite its work, so much else remains the same.


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