Comment: The Irish Abuse of Power Tribunals
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March 8, 2004: Last week the Irish Minister of Justice announced that public tribunals, which have been investigating corruption and abuse of power in the political, business and religious sectors of Irish life, have cost 100 million since 1997. It is appropriate to ask if the revelations of the systematic abuse of power have prompted significant changes?
The revelations of widespread corruption in public planning, tax evasion and abuse of children by Catholic Church personnel just confirms what was widely accepted. Tribunals are currently investigating the main politicians who have been identified over a long period as corrupt. A large section of the Irish electorate chose to ignore questions concerning for example the unexplained wealth of leading politician Charles Haughey who regularly spoke of republican principles while living like a nineteenth century landlord, as the kept-man of a group of wealthy businessmen. Haugheys principal political opponent Garret FitzGerald is a person of integrity but he failed to push through anti-corruption measures when he became Taoiseach (Prime Minister). The corrupt politician was left with the excuse that a brown envelope stuffed with cash, was given as a political donation.
Even today, there is no political will to address the real causes of the corrupt system of building land price determination. There is bound to be a pressure to buy influence when a political or bureaucratic decision can increase the price of such land twenty-fold. Bribery comes in many forms and the days of the brown envelope may be past but dont doubt that there are still plenty opportunities to buy influence. The price does not have to be high but being able to dole out prized tickets to corporate boxes at sporting events or having a paid junket to an overseas conference as an antidote to a banal week in the office, can work wonders. Recipients will strenuously deny that they are for sale but the call to the office on first name terms and the prospect of more free diversions from dull routine, can work wonders for the providers.
As Irish house ownership is at a level of 78%, the politicians are not under pressure to tackle the escalation in development land costs, which is seriously undermining our competitiveness. People pay lip service to first time homebuyers but once on the property ladder, the homeowner generally welcomes rising prices. There is the excuse that the rights of private property are enshrined in the Constitution and last year a Minister of State Tom Parlon, a former head of a farming body, warned against any change in the existing system. Mr. Parlon is a member of what claims to be a pro-free enterprise political party and he sees no inconsistency in that and a reliance on public handouts, which accounts for two-thirds of his farming income. Mr. Parlon said at the Parnell Summer School in relation to proposals to improve the supply of development land: I believe that rights cannot be withdrawn by a democratic whim of a particular government, and I fear that this is the brick wall that the debate on private property in Ireland is careering towards. It is an interesting point and even more interesting when put in the context of another economic good which accrued value because of restricted supply- the taxi plate. Mr. Parlons PD Party colleague Robert Molloy deregulated the taxi trade and the property value of a taxi plate evaporated. To Mr. Parlon, limiting the private property rights of Irish citizens in an effort to put more development land on the market would be an approach gift-wrapped in an ideology somewhere left of Stalin. The reason why the property rights of taxi drivers were not sacrosanct was simply that they lacked the power of money.
The one clear improvement in public administration in recent years has been in the running of the taxation system. In the 1970s when a Government dared to apply income tax to farm income, systematic tax evasion fraud operated at all levels of society other than the employee PAYE system. We now have a professional taxation system and the current investigation of offshore account holders is likely to be the last where an amnesty is offered to a large number (an estimated 80,000 account holders) to come forward and report income that has been salted away overseas.
The religious orders of the Catholic Church who had control of the educational and juvenile penal system for many decades have pulled off a great deal by getting the Government to take most of the risk in respect of the payout to victims of abuse. This is the price of past politicians subservience to their religious masters. It was taboo for most politicians to question the administration of schools and institutions under Church control.
According to Dáil Eireann records, in the ten years to 1946, the industrial school system held an annual average of more than 6,000 children-90% of whom were in custody because their families were destitute. The De Valera Government which was generally happy with the UK Children Act of 1908, introduced the Children Bill in 1940 to provide for additional restrictions. Both Deputy James Dillon and the former Lord Mayor, Deputy Alfie Byrne sought to have a provision for a medical and psychological examination of children before their committal to the industrial and reformatory school system. When positive examples of the way children were provided for in Glasgow and a number of American cities were referred to, De Valeras Minister of Education Thomas Derrig found the comparison objectionable and said: It is really painful to hear the case made here that there is some psychological disease or other in the City of Dublin, just because clinics have been established in Chicago or Detroit, or some other city. Where is the comparison between conditions in the Catholic City of Dublin and in the City of Chicago? There is no comparison.
The amendment to the Children Bill was rejected and Deputy Dillon said in the Dáil in reference to the three year sentence to an industrial school that was given to a child who had stolen some grapes: Can you imagine the son or the daughter of a resident of Fitzwilliam Square being brought down to Morgan Place and sent from there to an industrial school because he stole 5/- (32 cent) worth of grapes? The Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) intervened: It is very well to demur at the removal of those children from their parents' control, but in so demurring is the Deputy not criticising judicial decisions?
Not only were the children being mistreated in private institutions that were protected by the taboo on criticism of the Catholic Church, lay teachers had very bad working conditions. In reply to a Dáil question in 1943 on the prohibition on lay male teachers being married, Minister Derrig said: That is a matter for the school. Even in the ordinary national schools, as the Deputy knows, I cannot interfere with the discretion of the managers in appointing whatever teachers they wish. In the industrial schools, as they are entirely private institutions, run by the managers, I cannot interfere; it is entirely a domestic question. I do not know whether that is the position or not that teachers who get married have to resign.
Minimal reform has taken place in response to the tribunals. Those who kept their heads down and ignored what others were doing, have prospered. Baby steps have been taken in making public administration more transparent. Our cute hoor system of politics is as strong as ever and fifty years after US television was instrumental in exposing Senator Joseph McCarthy as a fraud and bully, it serves the powerful here to exclude both radio and television from the proceedings of all the tribunals. Meanwhile, some lawyers have become millionaires while there is little if any transparency as to the basis of their charge rates.
- Michael Hennigan
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