Not deserving of forgiveness

Michael Clifford says John Bruton’s call to avoid scapegoating individuals is a bit rich considering the elite has made no gesture of reparation to the public

JOHN BRUTON has brought some tablets down from the mountain. He is perturbed at the treatment being meted out to bankers and politicians over excessive pensions.

In a recent speech, the former taoiseach hit out at the unchristian behaviour by media in seeking to “scapegoat” individuals for the “problems of our people”. Bruton sees a severe lack of “forgiveness” in Irish society, for those who may have made mistakes.

On the face of it, his tablets of wisdom are an interesting addition to the public square. There may well be a case that some scapegoating has gone on in recent years. Individuals like Sean FitzPatrick have been put under the public kosh.

Bertie Ahern is another who has been blamed for much that ails the state. And just a fortnight ago, former CEO of AIB, Eugene Sheehy was subjected to the public stocks over the size of his obscene pension. So Bruton may well have a case.

Here’s what he said at the function in St Mary’s Church in Ballsbridge, Dublin. “Jealousy and backbiting and criticism of individuals, ritual humiliation of individuals, seems to have become stock and trade of our media. All on the basis of some notion of accountability — that people should be scapegoated in the interests of accountability.

“And there is one word that it seems to me that is being driven out of discourse in Ireland, in particular in the media, who do what they are doing because people read what they are saying: the media reflects ourselves back to us.

“There’s one word that seems to be missing out of this discourse, and that is the word forgiveness. Of course, people must be deterred from committing offences. Of course, failings should be exposed and people should suffer a penalty. But once that has happened, they should be forgiven and they should be allowed to retain their dignity. I think we need to reflect on that in modern Ireland.”

The comments resonate with another speech Bruton made in another church setting, Mullingar Cathedral, last Easter. On that occasion, he said: “Vengeance does not cure the injury to victims. Sometimes it makes it worse. Retribution is not Christ’s way. No, that hard and unnatural thing, forgiveness, is Christ’s way.”

Who could argue with the concept of forgiveness? Nobody with half a heart, but then the former politician did put his forgiving impulse in the context of suffering a penalty, but who among the elite, bar one or two, have suffered any penalty?

In any event, pious comments are all very well, but the real power in their meaning rests with the person who is doing the preaching.

If, for example, the above comments were issued by an elderly person whose home help hours were being withdrawn in the name of getting the country back on its feet, then that person would be entitled to huge admiration. To forgive bankers and politicians their continued excesses, while suffering a major drop in an already modest standard of living would be a feat that Jesus Christ could be proud of.

However, coming from Bruton, the comments strike a note of major cynicism, and merely rebound, leaving him with the appearance of somebody who is so far out of touch with the real world that he must be living on another planet.

This, after all, is a man rolling in money, including an obscene pension from his time in politics.

Bruton works as chairman for the International Financial Services Centre for an undisclosed sum. If his remuneration is in line with those in the financial services sector he must be pulling in a large six figure salary.

Seeking out forgiveness to bankers, therefore, comes easily to him. He can feel their pain, and their large wallets. Similarly, he can feel the pain of former and serving senior politicians and the comfort of their feathered nests.

HE receives a pension of €138,000 from his time in politics. In the 1980s, he served for five years as a government minister. Since leaving government in 1987, aged 40, he has been in receipt of a ministerial pension, even while still serving as a TD.

In late 1994, he became Taoiseach, a role he held until Jun 1997. Thereafter he received an even bigger ministerial pension to the point where he is now padded out beyond the belief of mere mortals. While still working in another capacity.

He genuinely believes he is entitled to every penny. Last January, he told a reporter that he wouldn’t be surrendering any of it, despite the current economic crisis. He said it was “up to the Government” to make a call on pensions.

Commenting a few months ago on the crisis in the eurozone, Bruton said we were all paying ourselves too much, “In essence,” he wrote, “the cause of today’s debt problems is that developed countries awarded themselves a living standard they had not earned. That could not go on forever. Now we must tackle the disease as well as its symptoms.”

Obviously, that standard doesn’t apply to himself, but let’s forgive him that oversight.

There is another oversight in Bruton’s political career that is not as easy to forgive. Back in 1993, when he was the leader of Fine Gael, one Frank Dunlop approached him with a complaint. Dunlop was in the business of bribing councillors for their votes to rezone land, but one Fine Gael councillor was proving to be horrendously greedy.

Tom Hand had demanded £250,000 for his vote. Angered at such greed, Dunlop related the figure to another councillor at a Fine Gael fundraising do. That councillor told him to tell the party leader. According to Dunlop, Bruton’s reply was: “There are no angels in the world or in Fine Gael.”

When Dunlop first related this vignette to the Planning Tribunal in 2000, Bruton sent a lawyer into the inquiry to “deny vehemently any suggestion that he was ever informed of an attempt at bribery by a named Fine Gael councillor”.

Three years later he told the tribunal himself: “I refute entirely Mr Dunlop’s contention that he advised me then of the alleged demand made to him by the late Tom Hand.”

By 2007, his memory had improved. When the matter was raised again in the inquiry, he told the judges that he’d had a fresh think about the matter and “it gradually came back to me” that the lobbyist “did say to me something about a councillor looking for money”.

What if he had acted on Dunlop’s dirty little secret back in 1993? Could further corruption have been avoided? Could the planning tribunal itself have been avoided? That would certainly have saved hundreds of million, ensuring that there would be plenty of moola to keep Bruton and his fellow retired politicians in the style they believe they are entitled to?

Whatever his failings, Bruton is correct in suggesting that individuals are being scapegoated in the media. However, his failure to contextualise the accusation is stunning.

Since the economic collapse there has been no central moral theme from people like Bruton. There has been no grand gesture of, for example, surrendering half an obscene pension in order to acknowledge the suffering that is being endured as a result of how the country was run.

Instead, there is little more than a sense of entitlement to whatever they have awarded themselves. In such a vacuum, titbits leak out and are pounced on by both media and the public as another example of featherbedding among the elite. An individual gets fingered and, yes, scapegoated, because of a failure of that whole class to ‘fess up’ to their greed.

It began three years ago with the revelation that serving TDs were drawing ministerial pensions from their time in government. Cue outrage, pressure, and eventually, a realisation this would have to be amended or the peasants might revolt.

Later, it was politicians’ expenses. Then the salaries paid to failed bankers. Then more expenses, politicians pensions, bankers pensions and on we go to the next revelation.

Nowhere has an individual or a group among these elite stood up and accepted that, yes, they are pulling in far too much money from a state that is in receivership, while others go without the basic rudiments of a civilised society. In such a vacuum, how could there not be scapegoats, albeit, ones which are well padded out.

Perhaps Bruton’s penchant for references to the tenets of Christianity might lead him to listen to a man of the cloth who has a unique solution to the featherbedding.

Fr Donal Morris from Roscommon went on RTÉ’s Liveline last Monday to suggest that TDs who become ministers should no longer qualify for pensions for their ministerial service. Their pensions should be based on their service as a TD, that which they were elected for.

They should, he suggested, be treated as “stepping up”, temporarily, rather than receiving a promotion that pads them out for the rest of their lives. The idea is so simple and righteous, it’s amazing that it hadn’t been suggested before.

So maybe Bruton will keep that in mind the next time he deigns to issue a sermon from the mount. Forgiveness is indeed a laudable virtue, but how can it be extended without restitution, not to mind repentance?

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