Ireland needs to do more to tackle legacy of Haughey’s graft
Six months after Charles Haughey, the former Irish taoiseach (prime minister), was awarded the honour of a state funeral in Dublin, a 600-page judicial report has confirmed what most people suspected all along: that he was guilty of corruption in public office.
According to the Moriarty tribunal, which considered and weighed the evidence against him for the past six years, the scale and frequency of the secret payments Mr Haughey received from “senior members of the business community . . . can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.
Justice Michael Moriarty concluded that the former taoiseach managed to salt away a conservatively estimated £9.1m – worth about €45m today, or 171 times his gross salary – during his period of high office.
Apart from taking backhanders from businessmen, he even managed to expropriate – for his personal and extravagant lifestyle – money that was raised by public subscription to pay for the liver transplant of one of his closest political colleagues.
It is a devastating document, understated but unambiguous in its “inescapable conclusions . . . that he received a wide range of substantial payments . . . and that certain of the acts and decisions on his part while taoiseach were referable to some of those payments”.
In other words, he gave favours in return.
It is all profoundly shocking – and utterly unsurprising.
For most of the population of Ireland, and many who followed its affairs from outside, can never have been in any doubt that Charlie Haughey – “The Boss”, as he was known – was thoroughly and quite ostentatiously corrupt. His lifestyle of grand houses, racehorses, fine food and handmade shirts bore no relation to the relatively modest income of an Irish politician.
What is surprising, and needs to be more thoroughly explored, is why he was allowed to get away with it. He was defended to the last by his close colleagues, including Bertie Ahern, the present taoiseach, who does not emerge unscathed himself from the report.
Mr Ahern was found to have co-signed blank cheques for an account for party leaders’ public allowances, which Mr Haughey then drew on for personal use – a practice that was “both inappropriate and imprudent”, the judge concluded.
Yet Mr Haughey was widely admired, and voted for at the polls, by electors who admired him as “cute” – a very Irish concept suggesting both cleverness and dishonesty. He got away with it and he was not condemned.
Of course he is not the only one in politics. Other countries such as Nigeria, India and Italy seem also to tolerate an extraordinary degree of corruption in public life.
Party political financing in the UK, France, Germany and certainly the US often blurs the line between acceptable and unacceptable political donations. But Mr Haughey was particularly blatant.
In Ireland, Mr Ahern and his Fianna Fail party, direct successors of Mr Haughey’s legacy, seem to think they have done enough while the Moriarty tribunal was hearing its evidence to ensure that such corruption cannot continue.
“There have been significant measures of reform and safeguards introduced as the tribunal work was in progress,” the taoiseach’s office said.
That is all very well. The Ireland that Mr Haughey was cheating so royally was much less prosperous than the Ireland of today. There is a culture of materialism rife in the country.
Enda Kenny, leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, says the report confirms “a culture of corruption, self-enrichment and the abuse of public and private monies” in the ruling party. That was certainly true in Mr Haughey’s day. No one can be confident it has been rooted out.
Mr Ahern needs to do far more to repair the damage done by his predecessor and mentor to restore faith in public life. Ireland has become a model of economic success for many new European Union member states. It would be a tragedy if it were also to be a byword for corruption.