Irish Examiner View: It’s time we became a transparent society

Irish Examiner View: It’s time we became a transparent society

Secrecy and evasion have long been tools used by those with something to hide and it has fuelled cynicism and facilitated injustice.

Our capacity to adapt, to modify, is defining. Without flexibility, societies calcify, some become dysfunctional and collapse. Some, unable to evolve or recognise that change has arrived, implode. We are not at that point - yet - but our disposition towards secrecy or evasion and the almost limitless opportunities social media offers those who would deliberately fill any information vacuum with the wildest, most destructive fantasies has created a volatile mix. The iceberg is in sight but whether the ship can change course in time is, as the Trump era or the anti-vaxxers' malignant hectoring shows, an open question.  

Though it's almost four years since the trial of Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick (for allegedly misleading auditors about multi-million loans) collapsed we do not yet know the full story behind that collapse. Judge John Aylmer, on the 126th day of that trial, directed the jury to acquit Mr FitzPatrick. However, in 2019 the office of Corporate Enforcement felt unable to share its report on that collapse with an Oireachtas committee because it feared “litigation risk and associated financial exposure”. So much for transparency or accountability. That a Commercial Court hearing, just this week, heard that former Anglo Irish Bank head of lending Tom Browne left his job in 2007 with €9m, including €3.7m “goodbye” money is a reminder that these issues are still, all these years later, very much alive. Might we, or Anglo, have reached those situations if we had a culture of real, ongoing accountability?

This week a High Court defamation case dealt with the consequences of contested social media posts - posts that may have contributed to a TD losing a Dáil seat. The person identified in court as an author of those posts admitted that they did not know the politician yet recycled a derogatory but inaccurate post. Would that casual publication of disinformation have happened in a culture where veracity is underpinned by accountability? Probably, hopefully not.

Today we report on another example of how this society, especially this society's officialdom, is almost unnerved by testimony that records wrongdoing or abuse. 

We report that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission destroyed recordings of survivors' testimony. The commission argues that these recordings were no more than an aide memoire to be disposed of after records were transcribed.

Some witnesses say they were not told that the audio record of their evidence would be destroyed and, in time put beyond scrutiny. Others, in a deeply disturbing allegation, say their evidence was not accurately transcribed, that their story was not recorded properly. 

This raises all sorts of questions, most of which would not arise in an open society where proactive transparency is celebrated. Indeed, a solicitor representing some women who gave evidence to the commission touches on an issue that simply would not occur in such a society. Solicitor Simon McGarr has asked if "this destruction was undertaken after it became clear that these records weren't going to be sealed for 30 years and that people could ask for them."

Secrecy and evasion have long been tools used by those with something to hide. That culture has fuelled cynicism and facilitated injustice. Now that social media, by offering opportunities to exacerbate that denial with distortion, has changed the rules so must we. It is time to embrace transparency as an empowering, positive force.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Tom Browne was head of lending with Anglo Irish Bank, not Allied Irish Banks as originally stated.

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