Tribunal outcome won’t change minds of voters at next election

UBIQUITOUS coverage and analysis of the Mahon Tribunal report suggests we have arrived at a watershed moment in Irish politics.

Never again will our highest public officeholders be allowed to become compromised by business interests. An end to sleazy side deals where favours are done in return for cash is supposed to ensue. Such is the disgust and nausea about corruption that we will banish the opportunity for secret backroom deals to occur.

This week’s Dáil debate confirms a determination to enact new sanctions against wrongdoers by removing pension entitlements and lowering financial political contributions to the point of irrelevancy.

Forgive my cynicism. If ethics was rewarded by voters, there wouldn’t have been any tribunals. Election results repeatedly reaffirm that primary motivation at the ballot box is always economic self-interest.

There are umpteen episodes in our political history where we were at a crossroads, choosing between principled politicians and pragmatic chancers — invariably we chose the latter. Let’s recall the original of the species Charles J Haughey. In 1979, after the ousting of Jack Lynch, Fíanna Fáil chose to reject George Colley. The media and public excoriated Garret FitzGerald when he spoke of Haughey’s “flawed pedigree” in the nomination debate for Taoiseach. On three occasions the Fíanna Fáil parliamentary party outvoted motions of no confidence in Haughey. Des O’Malley offered the public an alternative brand of politics during 1987 to 1993. 40% of voters religiously underwrote Haughey’s tenure as Taoiseach. Individual integrity was secondary and submersible.

It was nonsense to pretend we didn’t know Haughey had minimal scruples. It had been revealed he had used the taxpayer funded Leader’s Allowance for personal benefit. The FF party treasurer, Bertie Ahern, signed the blank cheques for him. Haughey’s extravagant lifestyle was unsustainable on his political salary. It transpired in 1998 that he received personal contributions from benefactors to the tune of £8. After initial disgust, we got over our distaste by re-electing Haughey clones to run the country. All his henchmen went on to control the upper echelons of the party. Padraig Flynn, Ray Burke and Albert Reynolds were all Haughey loyalists. Their mentor’s attitude to party fundraising for personal gain was publicly revealed by another FF treasurer, Paul McKay, who was a founder member of the PDs.

Fast forward to the general election of June 2007, when much evidence about Ahern’s finances had already been presented at the Flood/Mahon tribunal. Bertie went within a whisker of securing an overall majority. His re-election as Taoiseach was a deliberate act of looking the other way, while craving an economic soft landing. Never mind awkward compromising personal circumstances, feel benefits of timely payouts from SSIAs. Almost a million voters preferred Ahern’s ambidextrous ability to maintain the boom rather than face the bust. The moral compass of Haughey protégés had to be flawed. If the Boss could siphon off several million what was so wrong about putting your hand in the till for your own thirty or fifty grand? The culture continued long after Haughey’s departure as leader.

Enda Kenny’s repeated claim for this country runs something like this: “Ireland will be the best little country in the world to do business…”; “Ireland will be the best little country in the world to raise a family…” and “Ireland will be the best little country in the world to grow old…”

Dream on. The Mahon report confirms that “Ireland is the best little country in the world to look the other way when it suits us.” Human nature is predicated on the pursuit of one’s own self-interest and that of your family. Mahon has not just exposed a cohort of dishonest politicians, he has put a mirror up to Irish society and the way we do business here. It’s time to suck up the truth. Bertie Ahern was archetypical of our politics.

In post-tribunal aftermath, a tsunami of abhorrence has descended on Bertie Ahern — little analysis or insight as to what made him tick and why he would continue with a web of deceit about his personal finances. Bertie was the most successful politician in the history of the State, by virtue that he is the only party leader to ever gain three consecutive general election victories as Taoiseach. He is the most driven person I have ever met in any walk of life. His skills include inestimable personal charm, unbelievably incessant work rate, master of self-deprecation, most meticulous methodical organiser and a latent burning overwhelming ambition to succeed. He could look around corners to anticipate and defuse problems before they got out of control. He manipulated social partners and sidelined the Oireachtas to weave a consensus around his own power base. His macro management of the economy was based on an objective to prime the pump at 5-year intervals of polling days.

Every step of the way his activities were supported by a cast of hundreds of thousands. They weren’t duped, they were complicit in today’s horror story.

Was Bertie a crook? I have my doubts. His agenda wasn’t personal wealth, like Haughey, instead his entire life has been consumed with the pursuit of power. He sacrificed his adult life to attain his political aims. His marriage, life interests and recreation were all subservient to achieving and holding on to high office. His political machine in Dublin Central was testament to his outlook. Party cumann and constituency structures were subsumed and integrated into his personal organisation. Micheál Martin’s attempts to retrospectively control these operations are two decades too late. It suited FF to run franchise operations.

Fundraising was relentless. It paid for his St. Luke’s base. Cash generation was so great that demarcations between party and personal finances evaporated. So much cash (in different currencies) was swilling around that proper accounts weren’t retained. The Drumcondra mafia owed their allegiance to Bertie rather than any party or political philosophy. After a costly marital break-up, Bertie lost the roof over his head and his cash resources. They wanted to ensure he could continue his ascent to the top job. His secretary became his partner. His life was utterly one-dimensional. He maintains a fiction of falsehoods, because the truth is even uglier. Bertie’s political modus operandi was a product of his electorate’s preferences.

Implementing every scintilla of each of the tribunal’s recommendations won’t alter the fundamental democratic dynamic of Irish politics. In the next election, the hottest topic is likely to be residential taxation. By then, let’s assume the household charge morphs into a residential property tax, costing average homes €500 annually.

Whoever promises us its abolition, we’ll vote for it in spades. Whatever politico promises us 50,000 new jobs from Chinese investors, irrespective of business ethics or human rights abuses, we’ll grab them with both arms.

At that stage Mahon, like McCracken and Moriarty, will be but a distant historic memory. Most commentators never canvassed for or obtained a vote in their life. None have tried to develop a shopping centre or office complex. The real world is a different country, where the pocket rather than the pen prevails.

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