MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Politicians, bankers lost moral compass

ONE word has been largely missing from the reams of coverage of the Anglo Tapes and that word is... morality.

Much has been made of the contempt that the clownish bankers caught on tape showed for the State and its institutions. Arrogance and testosterone-fuelled blather inform the recordings.

Reaction from the public was laced with outrage. Voices on radio talk shows have veered towards emotional breakdown. But very few people have referenced the paucity of morality that the tapes expose. Is this because we, in this country, can’t handle, or even recognise, the concept of public or institutional morality?

It should be remembered that when Anglo was the biggest money-maker in the State, it was lauded everywhere. In business, politics and the media, the bank, and those who manned its bridge, were regarded as the best that the country had to offer. This veneration had nothing to do with the bank as a beacon of all that was good about society, or individual endeavour, or any unique aspects to the Irish character. No, it was all about the bottom line.

The rude health of the bottom line ensured that Anglo, and its fellow travellers, were allowed to do as they pleased. In such a milieu, was it any wonder that the people at the top of these institutions genuinely believed themselves to be masters of the universe, lording over puny mortals who acted as regulators for the State?

There was no moral benchmark in the bank, just as there was precious little moral benchmark in the State at large when the bank’s share price was soaring. Public morality didn’t, and still doesn’t, appear to have much purchase in this State.

For decades, any notion of public morality was subcontracted out to the Catholic Church, which packaged it in sex. Public morality was exclusively concerned with matters pertaining to the Church’s view on sex and all that flowed from this obsession, including abortion, contraception, homosexuality and sex for anything other than procreation. These were the sort of issues that served as benchmarks for alleged public morality.

Then, in recent decades, as the Church’s own morals were exposed as hollow, it ceded the right to pontificate on how society should impose standards in the public square. What resulted was a vacuum. One discredited brand of public morality was thrown out, but nothing as yet has been found to replace it.

Ordinarily, it might be expected that the ultimate tribunes of the people — elected politicians — could step up to provide a compass. How, for instance, could anybody expect banks to take note of public morality unless they’re led by politicians? Let’s face it, banks are instinctively immoral institutions — necessary evils in a capitalist system. Politicians are supposed to represent the public good. If the latter has no notion of public morality, what hope is there that those whose first call is the bottom line will ever get the message?

To blame politicians for this vacuum would be easy, but in this country the first instinct of nearly all politicians is to lead from behind. They look into their hearts and deign how the Irish people want them to lead, and then they follow accordingly.

And what notion of public morality exists out there among the nation? One barometer of public attitudes to public morality is general elections over the last decade.

By the time the 2002 general election came around, it was obvious that leading lights in Fianna Fáil had the morals of a gnat. Party grandee, Charlie Haughey, had been shown to have been a crook. The planning tribunal had exposed Ray Burke as a kept man. Padraig Flynn emerged as one who grabbed donations intended for the party for himself. There was a smell off Bertie Ahern over his dealings with developer Tom Gilmartin.

None of that bothered the public. Bertie said he’d a lot done and more to do, and the party put up posters saying “Vote FF Pay Less Tax”. That apparently was all that mattered to the public.

Five years later, Ahern had been exposed as somebody who pulled in huge wads of cash while in power. His cabinet, the other leading lights of the party, had backed him to the hilt. Yet what did the voters think of this attitude to public morality? As long as we’re paying less tax let the man at it.

The opposition were no better. They ran from any exposition of Ahern lest it cost them votes. Notions of public morality are all very well, but if the public have no interest in it, then that was fine by the opposition. Fianna Fáil were decimated in the 2011 general election, but that had precious little to do with corruption or low standards. The party had cocked up on the economy and that was all that mattered to the voters.

So it goes also in the polling booth. The politician who is adept at giving the impression of providing a personal service to the voter will nearly always trump any who stand on a platform of public morals. There were a few exceptions to this rule in the last election, but circumstances at the time were unique.

So it went last week when low standards in high places were once again exposed. Enda Kenny could have used the occasion to assault the high moral ground. Instead, he resorted to rooting around in the gutter for votes, sticking it to Fianna Fáil.

With little pressure to observe proper standards coming from the electorate, how can we expect that public morality is going to be observed in institutions such as banks, which possess such dodgy innate morals to begin with?

Anybody who thinks that the clowns on the tapes were just an aberration should think again. Take, for instance, the attitude that they displayed towards public money, showing no concern that the exchequer was being ransacked for billions to clean up their mess.

What if recordings were made of conversations about public money in, say, trade union circles? Or among lawyers or accountants? Or elements of business? Or in certain corners of the public service?

It’s unlikely that the contempt displayed by the bankers would be heard in any of these sectors, but it’s also unlikely that wholesale attitudes to public money would be informed by a decent standard of public morality.

Last week was an opportunity to kick off some debate of the kind of standards that should be employed in a society, and whether the years of excess drained away from wider society fidelity to proper public morals.

Instead, we got anger, and indignation, and a sense of impotence that the bankers appear to have got away with it.

There was no effort to turn the exposure into something cathartic, that might lead to some effort to better society.

What we really got was the kind of leadership we’ve come to expect.

What’s really galling is that it may well be the kind of leadership we deserve.


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