Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

A state sullied by years of dig-outs, cronyism and bribes

'by its very nature corruption is secretive, complex and generally not of the obliging kind that provides an arsenal of smoking guns."

Here is just one of the many incisive observations by Elaine Byrne in her outstanding probe of nearly 90 years of the intersection of politics, financial dig-outs, favouritism and extraordinary dissimulation of language in sovereign, self-governed Ireland.

This is an extremely important book. It comes at a time when there is widespread disillusionment about the merit of public inquiries into controversial events in the Republic's public life. Very many people see them as barrister-fattening exercises with little adverse consequences for the wrongdoers who are exposed.

And no wonder, either, that we are fatigued with the process.

In the 20-year period, 1990-2010, as Byrne points out, there have been no fewer than 32 public inquiries initiated "to examine matters of ethical concern within politics, business, church, police, finance, public service, professions and health", as she puts it.

But this brings us to one of the great merits of the book.

Take the major tribunals of inquiry of the last 20 years - the Hamilton Beef Tribunal; the McCracken Tribunal on Ben Dunne's payments to Haughey and his relationship with Michael Lowry; the Moriarty Tribunal to further investigate payments to Haughey and Lowry; and the Flood/Mahon Tribunal which probed planning and payments to politicians.

Understandably, very few people will have trawled through these door-stopper productions, and will have settled for media analysis of their findings. But clearly Byrne has trawled through them all, and she serves up a truly shocking resume of what these tribunals uncovered by dispassionately setting out their key findings of fact.

She has not uncovered anything new, but the masterly assembling of evidence and her forensic analysis still has the power to shock.

Take the beef industry controversies of the 1980s which culminated in the tribunal of that name.

In 1989, beef baron Larry Goodman told a Fair Trade Commission inquiry in relation to a company called Master Meats: "I didn't own it. I never owned it and I can put my hand on my heart and say that."

However, in a subsequent 2002 High Court case, Goodman accepted that he did own and control the company.

Byrne's narrative also brings out the contrasting approach of the different judges in their reports. She concludes that the Beef Tribunal report by Judge Hamilton was "unwieldy and opaque".

This rather feather-duster approach by the late Judge Hamilton contrasts sharply in Byrne's narrative with, for instance, the scalpel-like approach of Judge Moriarty in his findings.

He concluded that Charlie Haughey had received over £9m in donations from business people between 1979 and 1996 (which the tribunal calculated at €45m - £36m - in contemporary terms), and said he "devalued the quality of a modern democracy".

This is a must-read book.

And while the book went to print before the recent publication of the Mahon Report on Bertie Ahern's arcane financial arrangements, those who are, or should be, concerned with the findings a year ago of the Moriarty Tribunal will enjoy a timely refresher.

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