Last week, Preet Bharara, The US Attorney (Director of Public Prosecutions) for the southern district of New York sent out a tweet welcoming the conviction of a man named Dean Skelos. Skelos was New York State’s senate majority leader, and had been known as one of the “three men in a room” along with state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and governor Andrew Cuomo who actually ran the state of New York. Skelos was convicted of bribery and extortion charges, accused of trying to enrich his son. In November, state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges too. Both men look like getting about 130 years each.
These were important men. For many years, in New York state politics, these were The Men. Between them, they controlled the New York state legislature and a state budget of $150 billion dollars, nearly three times the national budget of Ireland. What was interesting was that the US attorney saw fit to publicise widely his role in putting these men behind bars. Political showboating? Almost certainly. The office of New York’s US Attorney has already proven to be a political launching pad for one Rudolph W. Giuliani, who’s jailing of dodgy Wall Street types won him a lot of votes with ordinary working people who wanted to see that the law applied to the mucky-mucks as well.
Does Attorney Bharara have ambitions for elected office? Who knows. But if he does, it’s not unreasonable for him to think that going after corrupt politicians might win him votes.
It’s a good job he’s not running in Ireland.
Watching the RTE Investigates report into our home-grown breed, you see the differences. First of all, it’s not the Garda or Department of Justice hunting these guys down. It’s a television station. If you google “FBI public corruption”, you get the page of the FBI that deals specifically with it, and lists out all the recent public officials convicted in recent months of corruption. In the US, if you’re a councilman or a state senator, there’s always the chance when some guy offers you a brown envelope that he’s actually an FBI agent wearing a wire.
Think Irish councillors have ever worried that the Gardai were out to get them? Put “public corruption” into the search engine on the Garda website. You get the following “You Searched for ‘corruption’ filtered by ‘all’ Pages returned ‘0’ results.”
The truth is that there is no one in the Irish state, unlike in the US, who gets up in the morning and says “today I’m going to nail some corrupt so-and-so to a cross.” As with so many things in Ireland, it’s nobody’s job. Why not?
Why doesn’t Garda Commissioner O’Sullivan announce that she is setting up a dedicated unit to pursue and actively attempt to bribe Irish public officials, as the FBI (and RTE) do? Who’ll stop her? The minister? The Taoiseach? As it happens, they probably don’t have the power to stop her. But more importantly, they wouldn’t have the stones. Yeah, all across the country county councillors would be up in arms, talking about their “good names” being dragged into disrepute by the mere existence of such a unit, but so what? Would it be the worst thing in the world if every grasping sticky-fingered “what’s in it for me?” councillor had just the lightest film of sweat on their brow every time he sat down with a developer? Or when he picked up his phone?
By the way, on that note, why haven’t RTE named the councillors who refused to meet them because they felt it was inappropriate? The fact that there are councillors who actually aren’t on the make is as big a story as those who are.
Of course, it’s unlikely the Garda will take such dramatic action. The organisation is notoriously reactive. After all, according to last week’s Garda Inspectorate report they seem to be only getting around to the fact that there’s a thing called “the internet”. The one thing that would make the Garda take corruption seriously is the one thing that made the late Telecom Eireann and Dublin Bus up their game: competition. If the government outsourced the pursuit of corruption to, say, a private security company or legal firm which got paid by the number of its privately investigated cases the DPP felt able to bring to trial, then suddenly the Garda might sit up. Now there’s an idea as to how to spend Atlantic Philanthropies money.
That’s the unwritten truth we all avoid: the Garda don’t take corruption seriously because the Irish people don’t, and they work for them. Voters, as a general rule, don’t see dismissing corrupt politicians as being their job. In fact, it’s even worse. A politician who spends his time trying to clean up politics is almost seen as a time waster not doing proper local graft work. There’s also the reality, which the commissioner will be well aware of, that the Irish people are far more likely to dismiss a politician who fights corruption than one actually being corrupt. Just ask Pat O’Malley (remember him?), Joe Higgins, Jim Mitchell or Dick Spring.
Fighting corruption in Ireland is going to be like bringing in divorce, equality for women or decriminalising gay rights. One of those issues where the majority of people either have no interest or are mildly opposed to it, but is pushed by a tiny well-organised, dedicated group. Then one day you reach a tipping point and it becomes the cultural norm, and everybody wonders why we didn’t always do it this way? It’s be the tiny Social Democrats or Renua or a plucky independent who forces the big parties to finally take action. That’s the Irish way.