Thin speech smacks of whitewash

TO say the Taoiseach revealed little that was substantially new about the Ray Burke affair when he addressed the Dáil yesterday would be an understatement.

Anybody who hoped Mr Ahern would throw fresh light on his highly controversial decision to appoint the disgraced ex-minister to Cabinet in 1997 will be disappointed.

Broadly speaking, the content of his prepared statement on the Flood report was already in the public domain. Regrettably, questions raised by the opposition about the circumstances surrounding the appointment were consigned to the bin by Mr Ahern on the pretext that they had nothing to do with the report.

Such a sweeping response is unlikely to appease lingering public unease about the whole affair. In light of what is now known, the Taoiseach’s reiteration that his decision to appoint Mr Burke was a bona fide one based on the latter’s “undisputed political abilities” has again highlighted the inadequacy of an internal Fianna Fáil probe into Mr Burke’s activities.

At the time of his appointment, the disgraced ex-minister was subject to widespread public suspicion and persistent rumour. These perceptions have been confirmed by the Flood report, which nails allegations of bribery and corruption involving Mr Burke and a golden circle of developers in Co Dublin.

The Taoiseach reiterates he was misled by Mr Burke. Revealingly, we learn he consulted the Garda Commissioner. However, the excuse offered for not consulting whistle-blower James Gogarty does not wash. Unsurprisingly, we are assured that everything Mr Ahern was told about Mr Burke and planning matters confirmed his assessment that the rumours were unsubstantiated.

Mr Ahern’s warning against prejudicing criminal investigations into the Flood revelations is appropriate. However, such a possibility should not be used as a catch-all smoke-screen.

Significantly, with pressure mounting on the Taoiseach, his observations about the exposure of those in public life to rumour and innuendo carry a personal note. Once more, he has moved to dismiss a rumour that he himself accepted a large bribe between 1989 and 1982. “I have never received a bribe in my life,” he told the Dáil.

Mr Ahern’s insistence that politics is about public service, and not about personal profit or power for power’s sake, is a laudable sentiment. Sadly, the nefarious activities of a string of politicians, mostly Fianna Fáil TDs, have made a mockery of this moral principle.

Names synonymous with low standards in high places include ex-Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Mr Burke, Liam Lawlor, Denis Foley, and also ex-Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry.

Moreover, the Taoiseach’s reference to tribunal investigations into payments to politicians, including the Flood and Moriarty tribunals, plus the Costello probe into the Ansbacher accounts, is further testament of sleaze in Irish politics.

Undoubtedly, the truest thing Mr Ahern said was that the uncovering of a previously hidden and unacceptable past has undermined confidence in Irish politics. It is doubtful if yesterday’s statement will restore that confidence.

Despite his insistence that the past must be accounted for and that those who have transgressed must face justice as prescribed by the law, it is also doubtful if any politician will end up behind bars.

Because of the manner of a statement in which the hands of civil servants and spin doctors are detectable, the perception that the public has been subjected to a whitewash will not go away.

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