Business as Usual
Business as Usual
The Laffoy resignation is symptomatic of a widespread malaise in the tribunals - that of corruption, arrogance and unresponsiveness - writes PAUL O'CONNOR.


A WORD OF ADVICE for Noel Dempsey and Bertie Ahern, as they battle to contain the fallout from Justice Mary Laffoy's decision to resign from the commission of inquiry into child abuse: Why not set up a Tribunal to investigate

the government's treatment of the Commission? With a tight remit, and speedy proceedings, it should report sometime after the general election in 2007 - by which time most Fianna Fail ministers will have lost their seats, and the public will have largely forgotten why the Laffoy commission was set up in the first place.

The circumstances of Justice Laffoy's resignation - she accuses the government of having hamstrung her inquiry by failing to provide sufficient resources and hampering its independence - can only deepen public cynicism about the plethora of tribunals and inquiries in the 26 Counties. The commission on child abuse has already been sitting for 3 years, and there is no indication of its coming to a conclusion any time soon. The abuse that it is investigating goes back, in some cases, to the 1940s. Many of the victims are old and in ill health. They cannot afford to wait for justice. But that is just what they will have to do, unless the government takes radical action to bring the inquiry to a relatively speedy conclusion.

But what are the odds on that? We have grown all too accustomed to tribunals and commissions of inquiry that trundle on for years and end - finally - with a whimper rather than a bang. It is becoming plain that the tribunals are not a means of finding out the truth; they are a convenient way of parking controversial issues in a judicial lay-by. There, the original scandal becomes overgrown with a tangle of legal argument, while public interest fades. Tribunals are a limbo into which the skeletons that rattle too loudly in the establishment's cupboard are dispatched to be forgotten. It is more than six years since the first ``payments to politicians'' scandal broke around Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry. Since then, two tribunals have investigated their affairs. And with what result? We know that Haughey received large payments from a number of individuals. He has been forced to disgorge some of this money by the revenue commissioners. And that is all. He retains the great bulk of his wealth. Having sold his Kinsealy mansion for 45 million, he has more than enough to keep him in the affluent lifestyle to which he is accustomed for the rest of his life, and to leave each of his children a multi-millionaire.

No criminal charges have been brought against him. We still do not know what favours he did in return for the huge sums of money with which wealthy businessmen bankrolled his luxurious lifestyle. Charles Haughey and his cronies in the golden circle evaded tax and funnelled millions into offshore accounts at a time when the state was close to bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands were unemployed, tens of thousands emigrated, and health and education suffered savage cutbacks - the effects of which are still being felt today. He told workers to tighten their belts, while he sipped champagne at Kinsealy and debated his next purchase of bloodstock or art; he forced a hairshirt on the country, but insisted on charvet shirts for himself. A Robin Hood in reverse, he was at the centre of a culture of tax evasion that stole from the weakest in society for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. But he will never go to jail for his crimes, and he will die with the bulk of his ill-gotten gains intact.

A narrow chink of light has been shone into some few of the dark corners of that time, but most of the seedy secrets of Fianna Fail's golden era remain hidden from us. We are far from knowing the true story of Charles Haughey's finances - let alone those of his associates - and it is likely that we never will.

Which is convenient, for a lot of people. For powerful figures in the world of business who were once proud to associate with Haughey. For the Fianna Fail party trying to live down its past. For a government, some of whose ministers gained their first taste of office under Haughey. For a Taoiseach who was his protege, his chief whip, his acolyte - the man whom he allegedly praised as ``the most cunning, the most devious, the most dextrous of them all''. Bertie

Ahern seems to have discarded the memory of those days along with his anorak. Ah Charlie, isn't it hard when an old friend, who you gave a leg-up in the world, no longer wants to know you? But if Bertie has forgotten, that is no reason why we should do so.

And what about The Tribunal Formerly Known As Flood? When James Gogarty came forward with allegations of planning corruption in Dublin, when Frank Dunlop handed over a list of councillors to whom he made payments in return for their votes on rezoning, there was palpable excitement. At last, it seemed, the lid would be blown on the whole nasty mix of bribery, corruption and cronyism that many believe dominates the planning system in this country.

The dogs in the streets had known it for years; now it would be laid bare before the people at large.

Several years down the road, the excitement is well and truly spent. Ok, so Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor have been named and shamed. Lawlor has even done time in the Joy - but only for obstructing the tribunal, not for corrupting the planning system. A few other councillors have been outed, almost all minor figures or safely dead.

For the rest, we have been treated to the spectacle of the great and the good (I use the words ironically) of Irish business and political life traipsing into the tribunal to waste its time and enormous sums of tax-payer's money, as they deny they ever had an overseas bank account, that they ever knew a man called Frank Dunlop, that they ever owned a parcel of development land within a million miles of Dublin. The councillors, poor dears, thought Frank was only being nice when he dropped his little presents into their hands, and the millionaire businessmen knew so little about their own financial affairs, one is left wondering how they are not all bankrupt long ago. Flood has become a farce - but it is not funny.

The tribunal has been investigating a small number of land deals and the activities of one corrupt lobbyist. There are, one presumes, other suspect land deals and other corrupt developers in Dublin. There are, no doubt, suspect land deals and corrupt developers in counties outside Dublin. Flood (now Mahon) has been running for three years and will probably still be running in three years' time. At this rate, a full investigation into planning corruption in Ireland would conclude sometime late in the 22nd century, by which time all those under investigation would be dead. Which would mean no fines, no prison terms, no punishment and no reform of the system. Which - I repeat - is convenient for an awful lot of people.

The tribunals focus on individual cases of wrongdoing, and ignore the flawed systems that make such wrongdoing possible. And they wrap that wrongdoing in so many layers of legal argument and procedure that public interest is worn out, and controversial issues are parked safely on the sidelines while years pass, victims and perpetrators die, and other topics come to dominate the agenda. Issues that call for a clear moral judgement - the sexual and physical abuse of children, the corruption of the planning system, the exchange of cash for political favours - become blurred and lost in a legal and administrative maze.

It is bad enough that the tribunals are toothless: the evidence they gather cannot be used in a criminal prosecution; any subsequent garda investigation would have to start over from scratch. It is worse that they distract from the real issues of how government and business work in the 26-County state. Planning corruption could not exist without our closed and secretive planning process, or the vast fortunes to be made from administrative decisions on rezoning land.

Haughey and Lowry, Burke and Lawlor are products of a political system that is more responsive to the pressures of interest groups than to the needs of its citizens. The abuse of children in state-run institutions was facilitated by a society that treated the rights of children from deprived or broken homes as unimportant.

None of this has changed. The system is still corrupt, arrogant, and unresponsive to those it claims to represent. Tribunals and commissions of inquiry will not change this. Their ponderous proceedings serve only to numb us to the scandals they set out to investigate. As they trundle interminably along, we loose sight of the real issues amidst a labyrinth of legal smoke, financial mirrors, and plain, old-fashioned lies. Meanwhile, in the back-rooms and corridors of power, business goes on as usual.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News