“Very” might be the typical response. And as we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, there is much talk about a modern day banishment of the snakes blamed for our economic crisis – bankers, regulators, developers, politicians, planners. But in reality, Ireland is perceived to be a relatively honest country. Transparency International publishes what is probably the most highly regarded index on corruption and the latest survey for 2010 claims we are “very clean” – indeed, with a rating of 8.0, we are the 14th “cleanest” country in the world ahead of the UK, US, France and Germany. We are considerably ahead of Spain at position 30 with a score of 6.1, Portugal at position 32 with a score of 6.0 and well ahead of Greece at position 78 with a score of 3.5. So as PIGS go, we are quite clean.
Greece is combating its ingrained culture of graft as part of its engagement with the EU/IMF bailout. In Greece they have a special word for what we would call graft – fakelakia, pronounced fa-Kay-Likya. And it is endemic in Greek society. Want to get a medical procedure fast-tracked at your state hospital? The going rate is €150-7,500. Want to make the tax inspectors go away? The tariff there is €300-15,000. And if you really want that planning permission application to succeed the Greek menu says that will cost you €200-9,000. Other inconveniences in life like traffic infractions, poor examination results, having to interview for jobs are more a la carte. Still think that Ireland is “very” corrupt?
The domestic perception of corruption has been exacerbated by several tribunals and commissions, both for the results of same and in some cases by the operation of the investigations themselves. We have had four significant “financial” tribunals in the last two decades.
(1) The “Beef” Tribunal was established in 1991 to investigate tax evasion, malpractice and regulatory weaknesses in Ireland’s beef industry. It investigated in detail what was described as the unhealthy relationship between former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and “beef baron” Larry Goodman and examined the government’s role in providing export insurance to Larry Goodman in respect of beef sales to Iraq. It concluded in 1994 and its results were debated in the Dail on 1st and 2nd of September, 1994. It uncovered tax evasion and malpractice.
(2) The Moriarty Tribunal was established in 1997 to investigate the financial affairs of former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey and Deputy Michael Lowry. 14 years later and the Tribunal still hasn’t concluded its work, Charles Haughey died in 2006, the Tribunal has cost over €38m to administer so far and the final total cost has been estimated at €100m (UPDATE: 23rd March, 2011. Perhaps a quarter of a billion euros according to some sources). In the Irish general election last month, Michael Lowry was returned again as the deputy for his constituency of Tipperary North where he again topped the poll.
(3) The Mahon (also known as Flood) Tribunal was also established in 1997 to investigate corrupt payments to politicians in respect of building planning decisions in Dublin. 14 years later and the Tribunal still hasn’t concluded its work, the Tribunal has cost over €81m to administer so far and the final cost may well be substantially more.
(4) The McCracken Tribunal was established in February 1997 and had concluded in July 1997. Its purpose was to investigate secret payments by businessman Ben Dunne to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and Deputy Michael Lowry. The Tribunal gave rise to the Moriarty Tribunal (see above) but is also noted for giving rise to criminal charges against Charles Haughey which were not progressed as a result of a controversial decision which judged that Haughey would not get a fair trial. Michael Lowry was found to have evaded tax when he received a payment from businessman Ben Dunne for an extension on his home in the 1990s,
In addition to the above tribunals, in the past two decades we have had three investigations into abuse of children by the Catholic Church, one of which, the Ryan Commission took 10 years to complete, we have the six-year long Morris Tribunal investigating the conduct of the Gardai (police) in County Donegal, the Travers Report which concluded that there had been systematic overcharging by the State of nursing home residents and two reports into Hepatitis C contamination and an investigation into the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. UPDATE 6th June, 2011. There is also the Smithwick Tribunal which was launched in 2005 to investigate possible Garda collusion in the killing of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers in 1989; in June 2011, the Dail sought to impose a time limit on the work of the Tribunal demanding a final report by November 2011. The cost and length of time taken to complete the work of the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals have, in my opinion, severely undermined public confidence.
Beyond the above, there are strong feelings that white-collar criminals escape justice scot-free – that we lack the legislation, the law enforcement and judicial systems to deal with white-collar crime – and that political party funding is still too loose. There are commitments by the new government to address both these issues. There are outstanding transparency issues such as the absence of a house price database and public cadestre of property ownership, though again there are fresh political commitments in this area which are also enshrined in our bailout deal. More widely, there is the perception of Ireland still being a small country where your family, background and connections count more than merit in terms of career and social advancement. The same could be said of most countries and my own view is that we are not all that bad. Transparency International would seem to agree.
And so on this, our national day of celebration, perhaps it’s worth remembering that there are some fine aspects to this country, relatively speaking, which the current difficulties can’t denigrate. And which might help build the basis for our recovery. A happy St Patrick’s Day to you all!
UPDATE: 22nd March, 2011. The Moriarty Tribunal has published what its sole member Mr Justice Michael Moriarty calls the report which “concludes the substantive inquiries of this Tribunal”. The report is published in two parts – part one and part two. Remember that there had been a previous interim report in 2006. The report published this morning runs to 2,400 pages – RTE is providing some initial reporting here.
UPDATE: 22nd January, 2012. The Mahon Tribunal is set to report in coming days or weeks. The latest estimate of the cost of the Tribunal is €250m+.