Comment: 'But sir, don't they all steal?'
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March 29, 2004- Some years ago in Saudi Arabia, I had a work colleague Mustafa, who was a former guerrilla fighter against the Marxist Government which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. I challenged Mustafa on his admiration for the late Emperor Haile Selassie who had salted a large nest egg in Switzerland for some rainy day.
'But sir, don't they all steal? Where did the Queen of England get her money?' Mustafa said.
'Well,' I said as I silently flinched at the thought of defending the richest woman on earth. 'They accumulated land over a long period.'
'But where did they get it at the start?' Mustafa persisted.
I thought of Mustafa last week when Frank Daly, the Chairman of the Irish Revenue had not ruled out the prospect of raising up to €1 billion from the latest trawl for illicitly stashed funds, to tax. There are few absolutes in the world and as public tribunals investigate past wrongdoing by representatives of politics, religion and business, it is clear that a significant number of Irish people were also ignoring both the tax and the then exchange control laws. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that much Irish private wealth has the taint of tax fraud.
It is striking how little impact the revelations of abuse of power and corruption have had on the governing structures of society. In fact, little has been revealed that wasn't widely known for decades. Charles Haughey became Taoiseach (Prime Minister) on 3 occasions although it was obvious that his extensive wealth had resulted from corruption. I publicly challenged this Huey Long of Irish politics at a forum in University College Cork when he was building support among members of his Party by peddling a fake pro-Republican position on Northern Ireland.
'My motives are neither sinister or nefarious,' Haughey responded and my fellow students felt that I was being discourteous to a guest.
It is an irony that the primary beneficiaries of the tribunals- the lawyers, some of whom are becoming millionaires on €2,500 per day- are profiting from a similar corrupt system which gave rise to the abuses that they are investigating. There is little if any transparency on the specific costs which provide the basis for a charge which the Minister of Finance terms a disgrace. Meanwhile, the Minister's colleague, Mary Harney T.D., the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has delayed any reforms of the legal professions for years by passing the issue to the Competition Authority.
Modern moral benchmarks are elastic and what is regarded as right or wrong often depends on what we as individuals or part of a group regard as in our self interest. Without the fear of serious sanction, virtually every driver would ignore the traffic laws. The city state of Singapore is often criticised because of the severity of some of its laws. However, comparing the Singapore Metro with our transport services and the comparable level of littering generally, why should reasonable rules which are strictly enforced be viewed in human rights terms? Having respect for public facilities as well as the rights of other members of society is hardly an imposition. The rules which we in Ireland enforce harshly are often an issue for the poor or underclass of society. The penalty for shoplifting is often much harsher than for other crime.
Finally, a story in the Financial Times this weekend vividly illustrates the point that theft is far from an absolute issue. The FT reports that regulators are investigating the practice of banks retaining overpayments by their foreign exchange customers. The activist New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has begun an investigation of the Royal Bank of Canada. This story revives memories of how Swiss banks confiscated the funds of Holocaust victims. In the context of elastic moral benchmarks, it is hardly too harsh to state that where much of a country's prosperity has been built on the proceeds of tax evaders in other countries and funds stashed away by dictators, the bankers hardly spent much time soul searching.
- Michael Hennigan
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