It goes back a long way but the way in which senior Fianna Fáil figures selectively leaked — 20 years ago this July — details of the Beef Tribunal report, the very, very few that showed them in anything approaching a tolerable light, was probably the first use of the most intensive media distractions and covering fire in modern times.
That self-serving, late-night leaking broke an assurance given to Fianna Fáil’s then coalition partners Dick Spring’s Labour Party and led directly to the collapse of that administration on Nov 16, 1994. Albert Reynolds immediately resigned as Fianna Fáil leader and was within days replaced by Bertie Ahern. Ahern’s placeman, dig-out subscriber and staff officer in his Drumcondra inner circle, former CRC chief executive Paul Kiely, is at the epicentre of this week’s scandal. Once again Ahern’s legacy has a negative impact on public life and this is surely another occasion to quote the greatest political analyst of all — Shakespeare: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” So much for how we got to “where we are” but what now, what next?
The deep, society-wide anger provoked by the CRC executives’ pay-and-collusion scandal seems of a different order and may well be the catalyst for the kind of remedial action so essential on so many levels. It may be, or at least let us be brave enough to hope that it might be, the straw that finally breaks the scandal-outrage-shrug-of-the-shoulders cop-out that has turned too many of the good people on this island into disengaged, weary and deeply sceptical citizens.
The scandal must expedite the establishment of a charity commission. If Government fails to quickly deliver on this they can, in time, be charged with collusion to facilitate the next CRC-style scandal.
It should, ironically, help restore faith in most charities because the gap between the executives’ shameless, appalling greed and the wonderful, uplifting work of those delivering the charities’ services has been shown to be unbridgeable. Charities will, however, have to publish transparent accounts if this is to happen.
It is an issue on which every member of the Oireachtas can unite to ensure that essential safeguards are put in place, that best practice becomes the norm and that parliament does all it can to ensure that a public agency like the Dáil Public Accounts Committee never again has to sit powerless in the face of barely concealed sneering and plainly unbelievable testimony.
Most of all it is a real opportunity for our political system to show that it is fit for purpose and for it to try to recover some of the credibility lost in recent years. Unless all members of the Oireachtas can work effectively together, unless they can resist their well-honed instincts to jeer and undermine, unless they can echo the great, reassuring passion for a decent, more honest Ireland so apparent in the last, trying days then we’ll know that nothing fundamental has changed since the dreadful days of the Beef Tribunal. That, to quote another figure from those fading times — Lord Denning — would be an appalling vista.