Republican ideals crumble to dust

A new book exposes how, after a promising start, corruption became endemic in Irish political life, writes Colette Browne

IN 1922, as the Civil War raged on the streets of Dublin, the members of the first provisional government remained holed up under military guard in their offices on Upper Merrion St.

Forced to eat and sleep where they worked because of the risk to their lives of venturing outside, all of the meals for ministers, deputies, and officials were delivered from a nearby restaurant.

Two years later, those who survived the bloodshed received an unwelcome letter from the finance minister, Ernest Blythe.

“During the months of June and July 1922, owing to dangerous conditions in the city, it was necessary for [those] on duties at Government Buildings to remain there for some days, having their meals supplied…

“The cost of these meals was met out of public funds and the C&AG has questioned the propriety of such a charge. The minister agrees,” he wrote, curtly requesting that the full cost of the meals, £4 9s 6d, be immediately refunded to his office.

One wonders what Mr Blythe would make of the €300 Brian Cowen and his cabinet of incompetents lavished on their chef-cooked breakfasts after they had relinquished the State’s economic sovereignty and applied to the troika for a bailout?

Mr Blythe’s extraordinary letter was unearthed by Elaine Byrne, a politics professor at Trinity College Dublin, during research for her book, Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010.

Subtitled A Crooked Harp? Ms Byrne wonders if our national symbol has a deeper significance for our crooked little country, in which you have to pull strings to get things done.

It wasn’t always thus. Éamon de Valera made his electoral breakthrough for Sinn Féin in 1915 on a platform of probity, depicting the choice of voters in the East Clare byelection as a stark one between a “place-hunter” or a “patriot”.

The party mounted a huge propaganda campaign against the Irish Parliamentary Party of Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, deriding it as endemically corrupt and its members hopelessly enthralled to their masters in London. By 1918, the once omnipotent Parliamentary Party was decimated, winning just six seats in that year’s election.

In an attempt to heal the schism in Irish society that erupted during the Civil War, the fledgling government was determined to eschew the established practice in many nascent democracies, of the preservation of power among an elite by offering patronage to political stooges, in favour of a meritocratic system of bureaucracy.

Their task was epic. There was no political infrastructure or institutions, no system of justice, and no police force — everything had to be created from scratch. Notwithstanding the volatility of the era, a principle of integrity was scrupulously maintained.

Ms Byrne notes that “early Dáil debates denoted corruption as an evil, political depravity which undermined democracy and called for those who violated their citizenship duties to be deprived of citizenship”.

Hugh Kennedy, legal adviser to the Free State government, in a letter to his mother in 1923, bemoaned the “horrible system of jobbery” that had long been associated with public appointments and said the new administration was intent on “setting up machinery [to] save people like me from continual persecution by the friends of those who are seeking offices of profit”.

Despite the laudable aspirations of that revolutionary generation, the first whiff of scandal emerged within 13 years, with the Wicklow Gold Inquiry — an investigation into the issuing of a mining licence in 1935.

There then followed three tribunals of inquiries, in quick succession, throughout the 1940s — the first of these, the Great Southern Railways (GSR) Tribunal, into allegations of insider trading when two railway companies were merged to form CIÉ in 1943, tangentially revealing the incestuous relationship that existed between Church and State at the time.

Then minister for industry and commerce, Seán Lemass, vehemently denied he had used his position to manipulate GSR’s stock price in advance of the merger, but it did transpire that two parties had been given notice of the government’s intentions — Dr John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, and William Claude Odlum, the chairman of Bank of Ireland. Both men made a killing.

By the 1960s, backhanders and dodgy dealings were so normalised in the corridors of power that a friend of the minister for local government, Neil Blaney, felt entitled to bring a case to the High Court when a bribe was not paid.

Under the 1963 Planning Act, Mr Blaney had absolute discretion when it came to planning appeals decisions, and a teacher from his constituency, Mr Kelly, intimated to a building company that he could secure it planning permission — once he was paid £3,000 in six £500 installments.

When the company, Dundrum Enterprises, was subsequently granted planning permission, having only paid over the first instalment, it decided to stiff an aggrieved Mr Kelly, who sought relief in the High Court. The case was settled on the steps of the Four Courts after the company agreed to pay a lesser amount, £1,500.

That post-Emergency period was notable for huge demographic changes in Ireland, and these dramatic population shifts, from rural to urban centres, necessitated the rezoning of vast tracts of agricultural land so that housing could be provided.

A “Section 4” motion of the City and County Management Amendment Act 1955 meant that councillors could overrule council officials if they refused to grant planning — creating an almost irresistible inducement for corruption among greedy local representatives and developers.

The Kenny Report, published in 1974, highlighted the speculative nature of the rezoning process, the huge windfall profits that were being made, and the large-scale tax avoidance that was rife. It was ignored.

The Labour party, which Eamon Gilmore recently said emerged untouched by scandal in successive tribunals, was not without fault.

James Tully, who served as minister for local government between 1973 and 1977, granted planning permission for land near Dublin Airport after intensive lobbying from Michael Mullen, a former Labour TD and general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, Labour’s largest financial donor.

He did this — increasing the value of the land by £1.5m at the stroke of a pen — despite the fact that Dublin city planners had repeatedly said the land was unsuitable for development and the granting of permission required the route of a proposed new motorway to change, at a cost to the State of £250,000. In fact, Mr Tully’s decisions in the department were said to be so universally bad that a new phrase, “Tully permission”, was coined to describe them.

While successive governments have continually expressed shock and outrage at the findings of tribunals, damning details of corruption were splashed on the front page of the Sunday Independent as early as 1974.

Journalists Joe McAthony and Paul Murphy discovered documentary evidence that newly-elected Fianna Fáil TD, Ray Burke, received a £15,000 fee from a developer when 35 acres of land near Swords was rezoned — increasing its value from £38,000 to £388,000.

Mr Tully referred the article to the Attorney General, but three separate, and decidedly lacklustre, investigations by the gardaí failed to unearth a shred of evidence against anyone.

What amounted to a carte blanche for corruption was the net result and hundreds of thousands of families all over the country are still living with the consequences.

Painstakingly researched and replete with wonderful archival material, Elaine Byrne’s book traces the toxic relationships that flourished between politicians and developers in the latter part of the last century, with over half devoted to the tribunals — Beef, McCracken, Moriarty, and Flood/Mahon — that serve as invidious bookmarks for Ireland’s corrupt past.

Extremely accessible, the author manages to condense a wealth of material into easily digestible chapters, full of scarifying information that could easily compete with best-selling crime fiction in the bloodcurdling stakes. A must read for anyone who is wondering why, following the implosion of the economy, we are where we are.

* Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010 — A Crooked Harp? by Elaine Byrne, Manchester University Press, €21.75

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