A new regular column on the political upheaval in "these islands" starts its journey with scandal-ridden Dublinby John Lloyd / April 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
It’s an overused word-revolution-but Ireland is having one, in the overused sense. We haven’t paid much attention in Britain because Irish news is usually confined to how far the Irish government is assisting the peace process. But we are missing a spasm of disgust with corruption rather like that which convulsed Italy in the early 1990s.
Very large public figures are being investigated by commissions established to sift a bewildering blizzard of allegations. Most of these are about the standard kickbacks from businessmen-usually builders-to politicians or their parties. The emerging picture is of networks of money and influence which gave funds to politicians, political clout to banks and planning permission to builders.
It is a measure of the depth of the crisis that three prime ministers, including the present one, are implicated. The main figure is Charles Haughey, the former Fianna F?il Taoiseach. Haughey has had his bank accounts opened by the tribunal investigating him, and suffered the indignity of seeing exposed an internal memo of the Allied Irish Bank (AIB), where his account was kept, which stated that “Mr Haughey is quite irresponsible in money matters. He cannot be controlled on a running account.” This was written in 1975. Yet the bank continued to fund him until his account showed an overdraft of over ?1m-much of which the bank then wrote off.
The AIB was similarly generous, although not so wildly, with Garret FitzGerald, the Fine Gael leader who succeeded Haughey. Fitzgerald borrowed ?200,000 from the bank to invest in shares which crashed; the loan, or at least most of it, was written off.
The latest allegation is that P?draig Flynn, Ireland’s EU commissioner, received ?50,000 from a property developer. Flynn, a close associate of the present Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and a former Fianna F?il cabinet minister, has said it was a “personal political donation” and hopes to survive the uproar. Ahern, who has defended his colleague, is himself the subject of an investigation into the transfer of ?10,000 into a bank account opened in his name from Brian O’Carroll, an architect who obtained an Irish passport for the wife of US businessman Jerry Lindzon, source of the ?10,000. O’Carroll was quoted as saying of Lindzon that “he wanted to make a contribution to Ireland.”
Ahern may not survive this-although the fact that the sleaze spreads beyond the bounds of Fianna F?il has meant that John Bruton, the Fine Gael leader, has been muted in his attacks. “The economy will be the central issue in the next election,” he said in a recent interview.
The attack has been mounted by a media whose former deference has gone. Emer O’Kelly, in the Sunday Independent, compared her country’s political ethics unfavourably with the rapid resignations of British politicians caught in the headlights of much less far-reaching scandals. “What was honour? Clearly an effete quality which no red-blooded Irish politician need have any truck with. We got rid of that with the Brits.”
When an Irish columnist can say that Dublin’s political ethics do not match London’s, the word “revolution” looks less tired. Ireland’s mature nationhood depends on a relationship with Britain which frees itself from a stereotypical attribution of malice towards the former imperial state-a counterpart to the effort the unionists must make to free themselves from a similar assumption about Ireland. From revelation, change can come. But it will drop slow.
Scotland the peeved
A few months ago, I wrote in several articles that Scottish independence was more rather than less likely-and was cast as a traitor by some fellow unionists. The reason for saying so in the first place was less the rise of the Scottish National Party (it now runs a little below Labour in most polls, but has been 10 per cent ahead) than the view that the Scots no longer wish to be included in the British story.
In March, Tony Blair went to Scotland to denounce the nationalists again. This time he took as a sweetener the promise that Scots wishing to visit the Dome next year could benefit from low fares. He got a raspberry from the Scots media, which has never forgiven him for calling its highest and best “unreconstructed wankers” in an aside.
It’s a raspberry with resonance. Although Blair remains quite popular, a Scotsman poll coinciding with his visit showed that more than 61 per cent thought he should not campaign for his party during the Scottish Assembly election in May. Less than a third of respondents in this poll thought Labour would make much difference to Scotland if they won-although more people said they would vote Labour rather than SNP.
Official Scotland wants nothing to do with the Dome. While English church leaders negotiate over how much spiritual content it will take to ensure their presence in the opening ceremony, the Church of Scotland will not be represented on any terms, emphasising that its millennium will be marked by a commitment to relief of poor country debt.
Alex Salmond, SNP leader, expressed the received opinion of his countrymen and women about the Dome when he said that “successive governments have sought to create greatness in symbols and gestures, rather than the substance of creating a society that is great to live in.” This is one of the SNP’s finest tropes: that Scotland, by re-discovering nationhood, can with one convulsive shudder emerge into the new millennium with a plain, egalitarian public style which has no need of frippery. It is an adroit mixture of modernisation and designer puritanism; terribly New Scotland. In fact, lots of Scots families will visit the Dome. But only for the sake of the kids, you understand.