Katherine Butler: Painful and damning, but findings which should inspire renewal

The disgraceful length of proceedings can, in part, be blamed on the 'persistent and active concealment' by the two men
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The Independent Online

For 14 years it has been the dripping tap in the background of Irish public life, its proceedings reported daily on the national airwaves like a low drone that most people, long ago, tuned out.

It is, of course, a mockery of justice – and of the Irish taxpayer – that the Moriarty Tribunal has taken so long, and there is no guarantee its damning conclusions will lead to prosecutions. But are the findings, as some suggest, an indictment of Ireland itself? Does the conclusion that a government minister helped a telecoms billionaire win a lucrative licence land another reputational kick in the legs to Ireland just as the damaged nation attempts to begin the long, slow road back from economic wipeout?

This is, in scale, if not in form, Ireland's Enron. The contract netted by Denis O'Brien, thanks to the good offices of his disgraced former minister friend Michael Lowry, was the biggest and most lucrative ever awarded by the state. So the scandal is of an equivalent order. The disgraceful length of the proceedings can, in part, be blamed on the two men's "persistent and active concealment" of the money trail under investigation.

But could this report, late as it is, ultimately enhance rather than tarnish, Ireland's international reputation? It is a sign of political maturity, and a vindication of the probity of the judiciary, that such a rigorous, painstaking inquiry has taken place. The story uncovered is a bad one, but it would have been easier, and a even murkier, to shut it down years ago. Didn't Tony Blair do just that when the Serious Fraud Office's inquiries into allegations that BAE had bribed the Saudis for arms deals became too much of an embarrassment?

The Moriarty report exposes dealings by Mr Lowry which it describes as "breathtaking", "venal" and "profoundly reprehensible". By identifying payments allegedly made by O'Brien to the ex-minister, the tribunal highlights again the existence in Ireland of a golden circle of politicians, businessmen, bankers and planners, the same greedy set that sustained a property and banking bubble which ultimately bust the state and saddled future generations with unimaginable debt.

But it does not follow that the country is endemically corrupt. Indeed, while Ireland's public procurement and tendering procedures should, as Judge Moriarty recommends, be tightened up, they are on balance considered clean. Businesses often complain that Irish local authorities are too inflexible because they are so intent on playing by the book. Transparency International's global rankings show that Ireland performs better than Britain on absence of corruption.

What is rancid in Ireland is the clientelist political culture that O'Brien and Lowry's actions are a product of. The former minister – still an independent member of parliament – remains wildly popular among his North Tipperary constitutents. This is in part because Irish politicians carry out tasks that public servants are paid to do. You need a medical card (state healthcare)? You don't apply in the usual way, you take up your case with your local politician, who writes a letter on your behalf. He then takes credit for "delivering" something you were entitled to all along. No money changes hands but it is a form of vote buying.

The system, which cuts across all parties, is corrosive. It encourages the view that a legislator's duty is to man the parish pump. It puts the needs of the few, or the cronies, ahead of the needs of the community as a whole. Lowry, a former fridge repairman, has built his political career on "delivering" for local constituents like no other.

If Ireland's post-collapse renewal were to bring one transformational change, it would be to rid itself of the mentality that spawned him. And if the Moriarty episode speeds reforms in that direction, then all 14 years of it will have been worthwhile.

The writer is 'The Independent's' Comment Editor

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