The state of Ireland

The latest in a series of official inquiries exposes the extent of corruption in Ireland’s political elite during the long years of rule by the country’s Fianna Fáil party. These tribunals portray a world of moral as well as financial bankruptcy whose roots were planted well before the boom years, says the leading historian Diarmaid Ferriter.

Diarmaid Ferriter
2 April 2012

In 1997, at the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the modern Irish state, the political scientist Tom Garvin penned a robust defence of politicians’ performances in the context of their success in establishing the legitimacy of the state and its democratic institutions, particularly during times when other countries in Europe failed lamentably to do that. “Despite their mistakes and sins”, he wrote, “the Irish revolutionaries-turned-politicians got it more right than wrong.”

It appeared quite a convincing argument, underlining the achievements of the civil-war generation in overcoming the divisions of the early 1920s in order to create stability during difficult times.

But the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence.

Taking the long view, perhaps the very impulses that created stability and consensus in the earlier decades of independence also facilitated a fundamental neglect of civic morality and citizenship. This neglect ultimately allowed the sort of “systemic and endemic” corruption exposed by the Mahon report, and as revealed previously by the Moriarty report, what amounted to a devaluing of “the quality of democracy itself”.

There was not enough debate about policy, ideology or the consequences of a ruthless centralisation and authoritarianism. As Garvin observed, in 1922, whatever about devotion to national politics, “these unenthusiastic democrats were qualified in their attachment to democratic ideas and were not prepared to trust people with the power to run local affairs”.

This point about trust is vital: if people are not trusted to run their own affairs, they devise other ways of getting things done and with that the likelihood of corruption increases. While there were valiant attempts from the 1920s to clean up malpractice in local government, in the long run local authorities were stripped of most of their powers and the few that they were left with, including the power to rezone land, were abused.

A generational change

In terms of national politics, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were born of civil-war divisions, rather than having competing visions about how to shape society. After the laying of the state’s foundations, the practice of politics became about the spoils of the system rather than engagement with ideas about the nature of citizenship. It was about management rather than vision. It was also about, in a society so homogeneously Catholic, abrogating responsibility to the Catholic church in too many crucial areas, including education, with a resultant narrow focus on what constituted immorality.

Political culture was male-dominated and a closed system in which those who had ideas about doing things differently were dismissed as maverick, or, worse still, intellectuals, who had no place or role in Irish politics. It is instructive in this regard how difficult it was for intellectuals like David Thornley and Conor Cruise O’Brien to sustain careers in politics.

As Bertie Ahern - one of that glorious class of Fianna Fáil politicians first elected in 1977, that included Albert Reynolds and Pádraig Flynn - recorded in his memoirs Bertie Ahern: The Autobiography, he had nothing but contempt for intellectuals challenging the ward boss conception of politics. Ahern thought Labour party intellectuals would “ruin the country...I kept my appeal very simple...I would turn up at supermarkets, to flirt with the housewives and joke about football with the husbands”.

or him, the oldest rule in politics was that “the other lot are the opposition but you actually find your enemies on your own side...from the moment I won in 1977 the only plotting I was doing was about how to hold on to the seat at the next election”.

He also, of course, made time to pocket a lot of cash donations.
On such sophisticated foundations was the career of a three-time taoiseach (prime minister) the most electorally successful in modern Irish history after Éamon de Valera, built.

In the last few years of his life, Garret FitzGerald occasionally broached the issue of corruption in Irish politics, suggesting in 2010 that the civil-war generation through its “unselfish patriotism” provided a barrier “to the spread to politics of the socially inadequate value system that we, as a people, had inherited from our colonial past”.

This may be too sweeping an assertion, but there is some truth in it. There was more of a premium in that era placed on integrity and dignity in public life and the very fact that some of the founding generation of Fianna Fáil, including Frank Aiken, Seán MacEntee and de Valera, expressed strong reservations about the probity of the Fianna Fáil generation coming behind them, suggests they knew priorities had changed and that quality leadership was threatened.

A bleak prospect

There is a danger here, however, of assuming that the civil-war generation was lily-white in this regard, which it was not. The network of alliances, powerful vested interests and pressure-groups that were built up and facilitated corruption did not just emerge in recent decades. They thrived, initially in a small, protected economy and in a society that was snobbish and hierarchical.

The existence of such groups is a reminder that because of the way in which political culture evolved after independence it bred a cynicism and selfishness about how to do business and make money in Ireland and the hierarchy of influence. While there was attachment to the tradition of parliamentary democracy, there was a parallel devotion to a culture of self-advancement, which was about who you knew and what you could pay.

This is a reminder that the focus in the aftermath of all these revelations should not just be on politicians; there were many venal people willing to buy Irish politicians, and politicians who were exposed as corrupt or untruthful continued to be elected and endorsed.

Another problem was that Fianna Fáil was simply in power for far too long and the longer it held office and dispensed patronage the more perverted the definition of loyalty became, in order to justify cover-ups and lies. Lightweights were rewarded and promoted well beyond their capabilities, which resulted in a considerable devaluation of politics and the status of public office. Those who called for accountability within this culture experienced fear, menace and intimidation.

As we in Ireland edge towards the centenary of the events that comprised the revolution of the early 20th century, we face a stark conclusion: this is a state bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a state whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten.

We may have little to cheer about in 2016.

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