Well done John Gormley and Greens

The Greens have made their first significant impact (3rd item) on the way things have been traditionally done in this country. John Gormley, Minister for the Environment has overturned hundreds of land re-zonings made by Monaghan County Council.

Traditionally, county councils ignore development plans, disregard advice from the Department of the Environment and local officials and proceed to grant planning, as Minister Gormley describes it, in a sporadic and haphazard fashion. Reasons for such curious planning decisions often come to light in tribunal’s decades hence – too late to rectify the damage.

I have to admit it’s difficult to get used to an Irish politician acting in the public interest. Actually using legislation, Section 31 of the 2000 Planning Act, to

“protect the national interest and ensure proper planning and sustainable development.”

Destructive and irresponsible planning has been part our culture for decades. Yet I have never heard of a minister using this power, indeed, I didn’t know such powers existed as County Councils usually do as they please without censure.

Planning decisions, as everybody knows, can make ‘lucky’ individuals very rich overnight. This happens when agricultural land is rezoned for residential use; the Monaghan case involved around 300 such re-zonings.

Unfortunately, such re-zonings can also add considerably to the cost of buying a house so the explanation of Monaghan County Councillor, Padraig McNally is curious to say the least.

“We are conscious that we did, to some degree, over-zone. But we did it in the knowledge that it would bring down the price of land and maybe have a knock on effect on the price of houses which is obviously the greatest problem that society, as a whole, has to deal with in terms of housing.”

The price of a couple of heads and chairs

It really is fascinating to observe the Green Party wrestle with its conscience over the Seanad election scandal.

We now know that political parties have been breaking the law for years by manipulating how councillors vote in Seanad elections. It was Green Party councillors themselves, to their credit, who brought this illegal activity to light.

That, however, has caused a major ethical problem for the Greens. The core of that problem is very simple. Do they abandon their principles and become partners in crime with Fianna Fail or do they stand by democracy and risk losing power?

All the signs are that they are frantically searching around for something heavy that will sink their integrity to the darkest depts.

They are already trying to impose a media blackout until the matter can be ‘resolved’ internally. In other words, the deal must be kept secret; breaking the law in public can be very damaging for a party’s credibility.

And breaking the law is exactly what the Greens are intent upon as they make clear in their latest email to councillors (sub required).

“Comments from councillors that they will vote for Fianna Fail councillors of their own choice will completely undermine the deal.”

(My emphasis)

Clearly, if the deal is to work, Green councillors must agree to vote as instructed by their masters and not by free democratic choice. In addition, Fianna Fail must, in some way, be assured that the deal was fully adhered to.

The law is crystal clear on such matters. (My emphasis)

Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1947 82.—(1) The Seanad returning officer and every officer and clerk concerned in the issue or the receipt of ballot papers or the counting of votes under this Act and every candidate or other person present at such issue, receipt, or counting shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of the voting at the election and shall not, before the completion of the election, communicate, except for some purpose authorised by law, any information as to whether any elector has or has not voted at the election or as to the official mark, and shall not at any time communicate to any person any information obtained at or in connection with such issue, receipt, or counting as to the candidate for whom any elector has voted or as to whether any elector has or has not voted or as to the number on the back of any ballot paper.

(2) A person shall not interfere with or attempt to interfere with the receipt, marking, or return of the ballot paper of any elector at an election under this Act.

(3) A person shall not directly or indirectly induce any elector at an election under this Act to display his ballot paper after he has marked it so as to make known to such person or to any other person the name of any candidate for whom he has marked his vote on such ballot paper.

(4) A person who acts in contravention of this section shall be guilty of an offence under this section and shall be liable on summary conviction thereof to imprisonment for any term not exceeding six months.

The Greens cannot avoid the stark reality they are facing – break electoral law or risk the wrath of Fianna Fail, they cannot have it both ways.

And what glittering prize is Fianna Fail offering for cooperation in this act of political skullduggery? – Extra staff and office space.

Hardly a wet day in power and the Greens are about to sell their souls for a couple of heads and chairs.

The death of innocence

The Green Party has had its first blooding in how to manage scandal in public life. Secrecy is the crucial element in Irish public life if a politician or party wants to avoid having to provide embarrassing and far fetched explanations to the public.

And Trevor Sergeant’s explanation (8th item) regarding the illegal supervision of Seanad election voting was far fetched.

Green Party councillors had received an email instructing them to submit their ballot cards for inspection. Because they’re new to power and because they still have political integrity they naively made their outrage public. Tut, tut, first rule in Irish political life – All law breaking must be kept secret.

Sargent explained that the email was sent because of

“a mistaken understanding based on an old rule that unfortunately was presented as the current situation.”

Brilliant, pure Fianna Fail. Just mouth words, it doesn’t matter what they are, doesn’t matter if they make sense or not, nobody is going to delve any deeper. Well, almost nobody.

The situation is simple. For years Irish political parties have been breaking electoral law by forcing councillors to submit their ballot papers for inspection to ensure that deals done are being adhered to.

So what is Sargent talking about? Was there an old Seanad rule that allowed parties to break the law? Does the ‘current situation’ mean that that rule is now outlawed?

How are other parties, used to illegally tampering with electoral law, going to make the difficult transition to genuine democratic practices?

Or, has the Green Party learned the lesson and arrived at a ‘suitable alternative (secret) arrangement’ whereby Fianna Fail can be sure of their pound of flesh?

Ah, the death of innocence.

Manipulating democracy

Every self respecting democracy in the world operates under the rule of law. Electoral law is particularly important because it is based on the authority of the people. Any interference, any sly manipulation of such law seriously dilutes the quality of that democratic authority.

Stephen Collins, political editor of the Irish Times, explained on RTEs News at One (4th item) yesterday how Irish politicians have been breaking the law for years by supervising how councillors are voting in Seanad elections.

This illegal activity is to make sure that the councillors are voting according to deals worked out between the political parties.

The United Nations frequently sends teams of inspectors to emerging democracies around the world to ensure that such vote tampering does not occur; Irish politicians are often invited to join these inspection teams.

They must feel odd to find themselves strictly enforcing electoral laws that they have been openly flouting themselves for years.

Lessons from Liberia

It is reported in today’s Irish Times (20th June, sub required) that the Auditor General of Liberia has strongly attacked its president for the non accountability of millions of dollars. A number of comparisons can be made with this scandal and the situation in Ireland.

Liberia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world but with help from the international community it is making a serious attempt to fight the disease. Here in Ireland, we have yet to even admit that we are seriously infected.

The matter was taboo during the election because it was judged too risky to attack Bertie Ahern on his personal finances. Neither can we expect much action from the new arrivals in government. Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe has already made his party’s position crystal clear;

“The Green Party is not the moral guardian of Fianna Fail or anybody else.”

Liberia’s Auditor General is paid by the international community, obviously to ensure an independent and objective voice in the fight against corruption.

Ireland is badly in need of such an arrangement. An investigation into the non accountability of millions, secretly paid to independent TDs to buy their political support, would be a priority.

Oh Mary

Mary Harney and Joint Honorary Treasurer of the Progressive Democrats, Paul Mackay, were taking a stroll on the beach.

They were discussing Paul’s worry that the PDs were getting too close to Fianna Fail. Suddenly, Paul spotted a very bright and shiny object on the sand.

Wow, I’ve never seen anything like it before, what is it Mary?

You have seen it before, Paul; it’s a lump of integrity.

Integrity? But it couldn’t be Mary, it’s bright and clean, nothing like the lacklustre integrity we have back at party headquarters.

That’s because our integrity is not real, it’s made from recycled brown paper envelopes.

But.., but why Mary.., Why?

Well, Paul, it’s simple. When we decided to board the Fianna Fail boat ten years ago it was already overloaded with developers contracts, jobs for the boys, promises to ‘friends’ etc. Our heavy integrity would have sunk the whole operation so we dumped the lot overboard; I suppose that’s one of the pieces that washed up.

Anyway, we could hardly go public on what we had done so we created a new lightweight type of integrity, specifically designed to keep the boat afloat. It was made up of an endless supply of brown paper envelopes from Fianna Fail headquarters. You have to admit, it fooled you for ten years and, until recently, most other Irish citizens.

Oh Mary, Mary, how could you? You mean it’s all true? Haughey was really corrupt and not a patriot to his fingertips? Bertie really does have questions to answer? Dick Roche is not leaving office to work on the streets of Calcutta. Oh Mary, please, don’t tell me that Martin Cullen is not really my fairy godmother. How could you betray me like this?

Pull yourself together Paul, the Great One is pleased with our performance, that’s why we’re back in power. And the really good news is that from now on we don’t have to bother with all that integrity stuff.

The Green’s have arrived with truckloads of it; I think they made it from a combination of recycled Green policy papers, muck from the Tara/Skryne valley and the tears of all those eejits who voted for change.

C’mon, I have a health business.., er, health department to run…

Bunny rabbits supping with the devil

There’s an image that flashes in my mind every time I hear Green Party spokespersons struggling to adapt to life on Planet Bertie.

Mr. Bunny Rabbit, out for his nightly stroll, is suddenly blinded by two very bright lights bearing down on him and he thinks; ‘I wonder what’s going to happen next?

The story so far…

On the M3:

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned during these negotiations, when a project is underway and it may not, in the public mind seem like a difficulty to stop it, but when you start looking at the legality of it, the contractual arrangements, the work that’s being done and the momentum that’s built up, it becomes very, very difficult to stop that train in its tracks.”

(Green TD, Trevor Sargent, Tonight with Vincent Browne, Wed. 13th June).

So, if only the Green’s had known about the legal and contractual arrangements already in place regarding Tara they would have been happy to drop their long and passionate campaign to stop a major motorway running through the Tara/Skryne valley

On Shannon:

“It’s probably more difficult than the M3 situation because you’re not only dealing with a situation that is ongoing but also with a situation that is internationally complex and probably requires a number of governments to be involved in resolving it, but we did get some movements on renditions.”

(Trevor Sargent: Link as above).

So, not much comfort for the countless thousands dying in Iraq but Trevor did add that they got a great deal on home insulation.

On Corruption:

“The Green Party is not the moral guardian of Fianna Fail or anybody else.”

(Green TD, Ciaran Cuffe).

That’s clear enough, Bertie can rest easy.

On their own members:

“It did surprise me the amount of ‘Save Tara’, ‘Vote no’ posters that were outside the Mansion House on Wednesday as if us not participating in government, that our moral purity would shine from the hills and suddenly get a sea change. That was never going to happen.”

(Green TD, Paul Gogarty).

So, keep quiet and forget all that campaigning, educating, lobbying, protesting stuff. The only way to get change is to er…sup with the devil?

Fatal compromise

It hardly needs to be said that being in government is the place to be. It’s the only place where a political party has any hope of getting its policies implemented.

It is also true that a small party like the Greens, negotiating from a position of weakness, could not hope to have all or even the greater part of their policies accepted.

Having said that, however, I think the Greens have made a major mistake.

Yes, they have been waiting 25 years for this opportunity, yes, it would have been very difficult to wait another five years, yes they would have lost credibility as a serious political party if they were seen as uncompromising. But at what price will power come?

They will now serve in a government intent on committing the greatest act of environmental vandalism in Irish history, the building of the M3 through the historic and immensely important Tara-Skryne valley.

They will also be complicit in Mary Harney’s co-location of hospitals. This scheme, which will cost taxpayers countless millions, will, I believe, be seen in years to come as the most disastrous health policy since the savage health cuts made in the 1980s by Charlie Haughey.

Co-location will, I believe, be seen as the moment when Ireland took the American road to health care. Those with money will receive first class care while those without will just have to make do.

The Green’s have argued that they are doing what many of their colleagues have already successfully done in other European countries – joining mainstream politics in order to advance their policies.

But Ireland is not like other European countries, it is a country that suffers to an enormous degree from corruption and there are only two ways of dealing with this corrosive disease – meet it head on and eradicate it or pretend it doesn’t exist with all the damaging consequences that that entails.

The Progressive Democrats, under Mary Harney, quickly realised that if they wanted to stay in power in a state that is intrinsically corrupt they had to compromise on their principles and integrity. In the end, they did this with remarkable ease and are now indistinguishable from Fianna Fail in every aspect but name.

The Greens will have to do the same; they will have to pretend that the raging elephant of corruption is not in the room. Indeed, they have already begun to slot comfortably into the scheme of things. Corporate donations and all other serious reforms for tackling corruption in public life are off the table.

Their spokespersons are already mouthing the tired mantra favoured by Fianna Fail:

“We will have to wait for the tribunal to report.” Or, “These are all matters for the tribunal and it behoves us all to blah blah blah.”

Ciaran Cuffe, speaking on Tonight with Vincent Browne, was crystal clear on the Green’s new policy on corruption and issues of standards in public life.

“The Green Party is not the moral guardian of Fianna Fail or anybody else.”

The bottom line is that the Green’s will have to be as ruthless as the PDs in abandoning their core values in order to savour the few crumbs contemptuously thrown to them by Fianna Fail.

The general consensus seems to be that this government will last the full term of five years. I disagree. I don’t believe the general membership of the Green party have it in them to live cheek by jowl with the most corrupt political party in the county without tearing themselves apart.

I will be surprised if the present arrangement survives its first year.