Will anyone hang their Armani suit on the back of the Mountjoy cell door?
Michael McDowell, the former attorney-general, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, speaking in the Dáil in 2003 about a beef fraud that had cost Irish taxpayers hundreds of million of pounds in fines and in money reimbursed to the E.E.C. agricultural funds, asked the famous question: ‘Will any of them spend a night in jail and hang their Armani suit on the back of the cell door in Mountjoy? They will not. Not a single person will be brought to account for the most substantial and highly organized tax evasion in this country’.
He was right, of course. In Ireland generally only poor people go to jail. If you’re not poor we devise all kinds of ways of ensuring that you never see the inside of Mountjoy or any other jail. Yes, I know there are exceptions – Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor – but in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, when so much damage was inflicted on the Irish economy how many people in significant positions have been brought before the courts? Even though there is prima facie evidence that perjury and perjurers stalked the various tribunals, how many have even been interviewed by the Garda Síochána?
This is Ireland, of course. We do things differently here. We have thick necks so we waffle, obfuscate, distract, contextualise and if we’re politicians we will never, ever resign with good grace. In our culture everything is always someone else’s fault.
Resignation, especially from political office, is regarded as an indication of personal weakness or lack of political nous. So we deny everything. We attempt to lie our way out of things, to commit perjury if necessary, and to swan around as if everyone else is wrong and poor me is the victim of some undefined conspiracy.
It’s different in England. Last spring the British energy secretary, Chris Huhne, was brought to court for pretending that his wife was driving when he incurred penalty points. To the British police this looked like an effort to pervert the course of justice and they felt duty-bound to investigate. In fairness to Huhne, he accepted responsibility for his action, apologised for the hurt he had caused his family and retired from his senior position in government. He was sentenced to nine months in prison.
In Ireland, around the same time, we had the Ming Flanagan penalty points controversy. Staking a claim to the higher ground Ming and a few associates pointed to corruption in the penalty points process. It later emerged that Ming himself had penalty points cancelled, even though he apparently had denied this at first. However, as Ming blustered his way through the embarrassment that followed, no one expected that he would resign his seat or withdraw from public life. Ming Flanagan is no Chris Huhne; their situations are very different; but the real distinction between them is the political water they swim in. Honour versus hard neck.
John Bruton, a decent and honourable politician, must be fed up watching a television clip of Michael Lowry in 1996, standing beside him and telling the country that Bruton was his friend, even though Bruton a few moments earlier had insisted on Lowry’s resignation. Fianna Fáil must be haunted with images of a smirking Ray Burke, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Charlie Haughey at a press conference in the 1980s and Liam Lawlor standing in the background, a tableau of dishonourable resilience in Irish public life.
Recently the Irish Times columnist, Fintan O’Toole, an inveterate critic of low standards in high places and the modern equivalent of a Catholic bishop in 1950s Ireland, was taken to task for denigrating the great institutions of the Irish State. O’Toole had made the point that the executive, the parliament and the justice system were chronic and systemic failures. His critics, among them Michael McDowell, argue that there is a loyalty to the key institutions of state that must be respected, regardless.
Yet O’Toole has a point. It is difficult to see how anyone can reasonably argue that the justice system in Ireland is working. Fraud seems endemic in Irish business, as the horse-meat scandal attests once more. Lying, including perjury, is accepted as a given. Bribery, though becoming more sophisticated and is now part of a public relations budget, is just the way the system works. Tax evasion is socially acceptable as long as you don’t get caught. Tax avoidance is a science.
The problem seems to be, not that we haven’t stringent enough laws to support high standards in public life but that we don’t respect them. The system is about nods and winks, established patterns of undermining laws which of course should apply to everyone else but for a series of inexplicable and indefensible reasons never apply to me. Someone somewhere knows someone who can influence someone to get me what I need, even if it means turning the law upside down.
O’Toole may sometimes exaggerate. He may get up people’s noses, inhabiting as he does one of the foremost pulpits in Ireland. But he’s surely right about the central institutions of Irish life and the need for systemic reform. McDowell himself, having failed to make any significant impact on that culture during his tenures as Minister for Justice and Attorney-General, should know that.
Despite all that has happened, Michael Lowry will still head the poll in North Tipperary in the next general election. Ming will still represent Roscommon Leitrim if the raised bogs controversy has any legs in it, or the anger over Roscommon hospital has any purchase left in it. And those whose irresponsibility and greed during the Celtic Tiger has placed an albatross around the necks of successive generations of Irish people will still be drinking champagne in Bangkok rather than hanging their Armani suits on the back of cell doors in Mountjoy Jail.