Notes from the grimpen mire, part 4


Okay then, cup of tea at the ready. Aimee Mann playing. Magnolia soundtrack, if I’m not mistaken. Just what the doctor ordered. Now, where was I?

So, let’s return to aspects of Irish life that our Anglo left don’t get, and there are few better illustrations of this than corruption. You will recall last year’s controversy over Bertie’s mysterious dig-out, when at the height of the storm Fianna Fáil suddenly rocketed five points in the polls, and Irish Times editrix Geraldine Kennedy was heard to exclaim “What kind of country are we?” Meanwhile, the innocent Dublin pedestrian will have noticed small knots of revolutionary socialists bearing placards calling on the feds to arrest elected representatives, which may seem odd behaviour for people usually averse to policing.

Let your mind go back to the early 1990s, when Charlie was forced to resign and then Albert found himself under some pressure over his own dealings. At the time, the Irish left were very much taken with the concurrent Tangentopoli scandals in Italy, and the collapse of the Christian Democrats. It was confidently predicted – in particular by Swiss Toni – that Fianna Fáil would go the same way, blithely ignoring the significant differences between Italy and Ireland. The broad masses, in this scenario, would rise up and kick out FF, and the whole political scene would be thrown into turmoil.

Actually, it’s probably a good thing that Ireland isn’t Italy. The Italians dumped the Christian Democrats, and got Berlusconi (the structural analogue of Dr Sir Anthony O’Reilly becoming taoiseach) in coalition with the neo-fascists. Meanwhile, much to the consternation of both Geraldine Kennedy and Kieran Allen, the great unwashed have failed to be stirred by tales of FF corruption to rise up and cast off their oppressors. In fact, the dopey feckers keep re-electing FF.

Nevertheless, some of that old hope still lingers, which accounts for the reverence our liberals and leftists have for the tribunals. We open the papers and find some people who ought to know better hailing Judges Flood and Mahon as the Irish body politic’s answer to Batman and Robin – or, at the very least, Power Man and Iron Fist. Yet, as Vincent Browne points out in the current Village, the tribunal system is a scandal in its own right. Not least in the fact that the tribunals may be in breach of the Bunreacht, although one would need the gift of telepathy to guess how the Supreme Court will act.

Beyond that, consider that there have been multiple judicial tribunals running for as long as anyone can remember, with no end in sight. Nobody is going to jail. Nobody looks like going to jail. There are serious questions about leakage. There is a clear over-reliance on dodgy witnesses, not least Tom Gilmartin and my old friend Frank “The Canary” Dunlop. The overall costs of this judicial circus will be, at the very least, several hundreds of millions of euros, and may very well pass the billion mark. In essence, an enormous state subsidy to multimillionaire barristers, and such a blatant one that even the Law Library is getting restive. Those unionists who give off about the Bloody Sunday Inquiry don’t know they’re born.

There is a further, political aspect to this. The tribunal juggernaut is so clearly out of control that the only way it can justify its existence is by claiming the head of the Taoiseach. This is not lost on Fianna Fáil supporters, who take an understandably jaundiced view of the whole tribunal setup, and as this imperative becomes ever more obvious, the credibility gap grows.

One could argue that the tribunals served their purpose years ago. The law has been tightened up and public life is infinitely freer of backhanders than it was in the 1980s. Not least, the current media culture has sounded the death knell for the kind of “strokes” that used to be common – not many TDs nowadays would even attempt to square a constituent’s drink-driving charge. This is not to say that there isn’t a need for some kind of watchdog, nor that there aren’t scandals that need investigating. But it may be past time to conclude that the tribunals aren’t doing us any quantifiable good. And, Lord knows, if the purpose now is to arrive at a rational explanation of Bertie’s personal finances, they could be running till doomsday.


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 25, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    As someone who might know a little of such things said to me…’If they haven’t got him now they never will’.

    Bread and circuses for Irish Times liberals while issues in real time are ignored in favour of almost unprovable allegations from the past.

  2. franklittle said,

    June 25, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    Good piece and I agree with a lot of the points about Tribunals. I hadn’t been aware young Mr Allen made the comparison with Italy during the Haughey scandals. I wonder who he sees as Ireland’s Mussolini?

    I think though the bewilderment in the far left is a result of a relatively understandable confusion as to why the average Irish punter in the street is relatively unbothered by corruption in politics.

    On that, two broad suggestions. The first is that the political response to corruption, in particular in Fianna Fáil, is not to rise in anger and throw them out, but not to bother voting at all. Any canvasser from any party will tell you of being told on the doorsteps that ‘Youse are all gangsters’, often with general expressions of contempt for the politica class. Bear in mind that despite a massively cleared up electoral register, overcleaned in parts, the turnout in the last wasn’t up all that much as Harry Browne points out in the current Village.

    The second is the failure for a lot of people on the left to realise voters are electing social workers, not legislators of policy makers. This is a regular bone of contention between I and a close friend of Mrs Little who steadfastly votes Fianna Fáil, despite despising their politics, because the local FF TD got her the house, or so it is represented and she understands it.

    Arguably one of the reasons the SWP’s latest front did better than previous electoral forays was this realisation with Bríd Smith, who notoriously in 2002 and 2004 passed her constituency cases to a surprised but delighted Sinn Féin, and Boyd Barrett doing the bog standard constituency work so necessary to get elected in Ireland.

  3. Ed Hayes said,

    June 25, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    The SWP has seemed to have realised that actually sticking around for more than five minutes and concentrating on local issues rather than racing after the latest international craze will get you a half-decent vote. In the longer run this could mean they go all out and try and RBB into the Dail, but consistencey and staying power have never been K Allen’s strong points. A spy in the Henrietta Street HQ tells me that Socialist Worker is due for a major re-vamp, including shock horror a name-change, to what, who knows. This in theory is to make the paper more relevent to the kids in 2007 and the changing landscape of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Paul O’Brien will oppose the change and be derided as a pessimist; it will pass overwhelmingly. Eamonn McCann will complain but no-one will care because Derry is a law unto itself (in almost all spheres.) I know this because this is the way the SWP/M has worked for 20 years. If RBB was more ambitious or cynical than he would use the election publicity to promote himself as a groovier version of Kierin. However Richie is genuinely a nice guy and hasn’t got that in him, or hadn’t in the past anyway. Allen will reign supreme aided by the loyal and endearingly ultra-left Marnie H and the nasty and dogmatic Brid Smith. Someone will wonder how the major triumphs of the mid 1990s when several hundred members were claimed led not to power but to continuing mid table medocrity and fringe existence.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 25, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Actually, I always got on well with Marnie. My experience was that she wouldn’t just deride you, she would listen to what you said and then deride you in a more subtle way.

    Now, as far as consistency goes, one of the major problems has always been the brainstorms coming from Britlandia. Kieran has been around long enough that he often realises how stupid these “turns” are and tries to adapt them to local conditions, while paying the requisite lip service to the London curia. Richie on the other hand is much more likely to take up a “turn” enthusiastically. That’s only a part of the Odd Couple’s co-existence, but it’s an important part.

  5. Mark P said,

    June 25, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Socialist Worker get a relaunch.

    It got one not all that long ago, when it was reinvented as a “paper of the movement”, which seemed to chiefly involve going colour and carrying the odd article from NGOs or prominent leftish independents. This didn’t seem to do much to arrest what from the outside looks like a slide in circulation. It isn’t nearly as visible about the place as it used to be, most of the street sales seem to have disappeared and it started coming out every three weeks and then monthly.

    A name change and a further broadening (or softening) of its politics would just involve following those changes to their logical conclusion. If you are going to have a paper of “the new left” or “the movement”, whatever those rather vague entities may be, you don’t really need a name like Socialist Worker.

    That said, I’m not at all sure about the Kremlinology in the last few comments. If Allen really does call all of the shots and if he really is cynical about the various London-imposed turns, then it seems strange that the SWP have taken so enthusiastically to the latest one.

    I know it’s fairly standard on the Irish left to assume that the SWP don’t really believe whatever they are pushing this week, but I think that the latest set of changes have gone much deeper than you might expect. Their activity genuinely is very different from their routine say six or seven years ago.

  6. franklittle said,

    June 25, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Have to agree with Mark P. They seem to take People Before Profit (My own tip for a new title for the Socialist Worker) more seriously than any other project they have created or tried to hi-jack.

    They’re also for the first time able to envisage possible electoral success as a consequence of the success of PBP. In theory, Boyd Barrett and Smith could win Council seats in 2009. Maybe even Gino Kenny on a good day, though it’s hard to see anyone else breaking through.

    Small potatoes perhaps, as I still see no sign of the PBP phenomenon growing outside of areas the SWP have traditionally been active, but from Allen’s perspective something he could sell to the Pope & Co in London.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 25, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    It’s not an exact science, which is why I use qualifiers like “often” and “likely”. Actually, the SWM of my day, and from what my spies tell me I believe the current SWP isn’t qualitatively different, had a much more complicated dynamic that outside observers assume. KA certainly isn’t all-powerful, any more than the SP is a personality cult around Peter Hadden.

    Not that a major shift in operation would be unprecedented either. If you compare the 90s organisation to say the SW tendency in the old SLP, they look like very different outfits. Again it’s a bit like the SP, whose activity today is more like the early 90s SWP (with a longer attention span) than the 80s Militant. And notice this has only a tangential connection to formal political positions. Swings and roundabouts.

  8. Mark P said,

    June 25, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Well, yes I’m sure you are right that the SWP of the 90s was very different to their current in the SLP, but that’s a very long time ago politically.

    For 20 years or more the SWP have had a similar basic approach. They veered from position to position and from get rich quick scheme to get rich quick scheme but underlying the shifts was a very stable organisation and a very stable routine. No matter what they were pushing, party building was the highest priority, the core tenet around which everything else swung. So regardless of what else was going on they placed a high priority on visibility as the SWP. They had the street stalls, regular public meetings, a high profile on demonstrations, a focus on recruitment, the student groups and so on. Nothing they did was allowed to jeopardise that.

    The latest turn is different. Paper sales are clearly down. The street stalls are all but gone. The student groups have mostly disappeared. If they hold public meetings it is in the name of a front. Even on demonstrations, while they still have a public face they now split their energies between their own intervention and that of whatever front is appropriate.

    I haven’t been politically involved as long as some of you here, but these changes seem fundamentally different to me. They are messing with the core routine, gambling essentially that they can hit the big time.

  9. ejh said,

    June 25, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    Hmmm, Mark, if you’ve not been involved for all that long you may be unaware that name changes (both of paper and of organisation) as well as falling memberships and changes of direction and perspective are not wholly unknown in another far-left organisation which is occasionally the subject of comment on this blog…

  10. Mark P said,

    June 25, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Yes, EJH, I’m quite aware of that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing your views. Nor is there some magic formula which means that if you take the “correct” line you will be rewarded by some benevolent deity with growth, bountiful paper-sales or any kind of breakthrough.

    The main point I am making regarding the Irish SWP is that they are sincere about this change in direction. Much more sincere than cynics with experience of their previous “turns” may believe. My evidence for that is that they have been willing to jeopardise core aspects of their longstanding routine to further their turn, something which they rarely if ever did previously.

    That has cost them in terms of cadre base, paper sales, visibility and recruitment. But it isn’t as if they are just falling apart. They are taking a gamble. They think that they can hit the big time through a generalised “broad” turn and they are willing to burn through resources in the short term to take that opportunity.

    I certainly don’t rule out the possibility that the gamble could pay off. People Before Profit certainly seems a great deal more electorally successful than the SWP were under their own banner. By deemphasising the scary stuff about socialism, the SWP itself, or the working class they just might find an audience which is looking to buy what they are now selling.

  11. ejh said,

    June 25, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Meanwhile back at Irish exceptionalism…. before assuming that Ireland is all that different to, say, Italy, it might be worth recalling that CD corruption was a fact of political like in that country for forty-odd years before it all fell to pieces. Clientelism was if anything more rooted in Italian life than in Irish: in the city there was always somebody you could pay a bribe, in the country there was always a big man you could go to for help.

    Indeed if there was a difference it was presumably the strength of the Communist Party, which meant that nearly everybody who was opposed to the PCI was prepared to tolerate the alternative no matter what it entailed (and therefore implicitly accept its corruption). One could conceivably argue that when Commmunism collapsed, this bargain collapsed with it.

  12. ejh said,

    June 25, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    They think that they can hit the big time through a generalised “broad” turn and they are willing to burn through resources in the short term to take that opportunity.

    They probably do, but then again one can argue that historically, that’s what happens with far-left movements: they hang around on the edge of events for years and decades and then, for no obvious and no predictable reason, their number comes up. A bit like the Apostles of Flame in Asimov’s Nightfall.

    I think this view would probably disappoint most far-leftists, since it suggests that all the work done on getting the line and the routine just so is probably largely irrelevant to the question of when their ball comes out of the bag.

    Still, if it’s any consolation it would also disappoint most of the far left’s critics, whose objections – it often seems to me – seem oddly to mirror the outlook to which they purportedly object: except in place of the party always getting everything right, it turns out that the party being criticised always gets everything wrong.

    Incidentally apologies for the italics overdrive in posting #11. Any chance of a preview box being installed in order to render further lapses in concentration less dramatic?

  13. September 28, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    […] written before about my views of the Tribunal system (apologies for the repetition), and I also direct readers to […]

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