Definition of a corrupt people

I would like to formally welcome Sunday Independent columnist, Emer O’Kelly to the core philosophy of Public Inquiry. Her article is worth reproducing in full.

Haughey wasn’t the first, only the first to be caught

The shame is that we have no shame over the fact that we as a nation are legally corrupt, writes Emer O’Kelly
Sunday March 08 2009.

About a week ago, I was talking to my friendly local grocer in the course of my weekly shop. We were discussing the scandalous financial revelation of the previous day (I can’t remember which one it happened to be; after all, they’ve been leaking out on a more or less daily basis) and he asked in disbelieving tones: “What’s happening to the country? Is it never going to stop?”

I said that I couldn’t see that it could ever stop because we were, and are, a corrupt people rather than the country being corrupt. In horrified tones, he said he didn’t want to believe that. Nobody does, and the honest among us turn away in distaste from the stench of the reigning culture in our society.

But none of what we have been dealing with in the past three months could have happened unless we were a corrupt people. Unless the criminally dishonest elements in our society felt that nods, winks, dishonesty, cronyism, and shady dealings in general could be the norm, tolerated by those in power as well as made possible by our laws, laws endorsed by the Constitution which is so often spoken of in reverential tones.

If laws which don’t demand and enforce basic honesty, much less integrity of the highest order, in commercial and political dealings are not inimical to the Constitution, what does that say about that document?

From where I sit, it points to its having been drafted by people whose own standards of integrity and honesty left a lot to be desired, and who didn’t want to hog-tie their fellow citizens into rigorous standards of integrity. After all, weren’t we victims of colonial oppression, and wasn’t it our right to get our own back by exercising a bit of skulduggery where we could?

Don’t explain; don’t accept responsibility; don’t apologise. Above all, don’t ever be shamed into resigning. It’s only honour that’s at stake.

I’ve been expressing that opinion for a long time. (The first time was the weekend Charles J Haughey was told by a tribunal judge to go home and reflect on the situation that was emerging. I remember thinking with a certain amount of distress that he might kill himself through shame. I didn’t realise then that he had no shame).

And the shamelessness is with us to this day.

Haughey wasn’t the first: he was only the first to be caught. He was also completely representative of our innate tendency for corruption. There are no markers, no lines in the sand. Then becomes now, and the pattern repeats endlessly, honour and duty joke-words to be sneered at.

An organisation called Transparency International, which is an international anti-corruption watchdog, has been surveying us for three years. It has found that we are “legally corrupt”. It’s manifested, according to Transparency International, by “cronyism, political patronage and favours, donations and other contacts that influence political decisions and behaviour.”

The report of its Irish Chapter (it operates in 100 countries) criticises our lack of whistleblowers’ legislation. By that it means legislation that protects whistleblowers rather than as now, frowning on them as sneaky boat-rockers and informers deserving of having their heads shaved.

It savages our complete lack of regulation for political lobbyists and condemns the secrecy surrounding political funding. It finds a whole body of evidence on the prevalent role in Ireland of patronage and clientelism, and its chief executive here says, “it’s a reasonable assumption to make that there are high levels of legal corruption”. It doesn’t mean that our law is corrupt, but that corrupt behaviour and attitudes are legal.

The report also criticises the media for a lack of safeguards against bribery and corruption. It probably has a point. I’ve never been offered a bribe, but I would welcome legislation which stopped journalists from appointing themselves as unofficial and unacknowledged lobbyists, even unpaid ones.

And as for corruption, the only personal corruption that has affected me has been the various threats to force me out of employment, into prostitution (where I belong!) or into the bowels of hell by means of a knife or an IRA beating. Such threats of course, are not corrupt, but made with the noblest motives, and have God and Mother Ireland on their side.

The report also criticises the lack of a disciplinary framework for the judiciary, and that finding reminds me of listening to a lecture from a young Catholic activist lawyer when I was still at school (he was also a card-carrying member of Fianna Fail, and went on to become a Supreme Court judge.)

He told us fifth-formers with absolute certainty that the Irish legal system was the finest and most honourable in the world, and its judiciary the most detached and politically unaligned. In an aside, he said that the same could not be said of our nearest neighbour.

It rang alarm bells in my head, even then. It still does: after all, the disgraced head of the Royal Bank of Scotland is facing calls for his knighthood to be removed, and there are moves to introduce legislation to strip him of the scandalously high pension put in place for him before he was fired for destroying the bank.

The odd head has rolled here; but there have been no penalties. Not merely are the corrupt wrongdoers hanging on for grim life, but our own State servants, the board of the Regulatory Authority who so grossly failed in the duty they accepted on our behalf, seem not to see any reason, separately or collectively, why they should resign. Nor does our government see any reason to replace them.

Is that a definition of a corrupt people? I know what I think.