Corruption: Ireland’s Mahon Tribunal

23:34 Sun 01 Apr 2012
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Dublin has grown a great deal over the last 30 years, and in so doing has become a case study in how not to manage urban/suburban development, planning, or transit policy[1].

The urban planning process for Dublin County in that period was endemically corrupt, which was common knowledge at the time but has been made extremely clear by the final report, released 22 March 2012, of the Mahon Tribunal, a body set up in 1997 to investigate such matters. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the corruption and the terrible urban sprawl aren’t connected.

The corruption, combined with a property bubble that everyone wanted to keep inflating, created an environment where slowing development of any kind was extremely difficult—and one where corruption was ever more easily overlooked, thanks to the amount of cash suddenly available. That economic boom proved to be primarily illusory, and now Ireland struggles with debt, economic stagnation, and free-falling property prices. It’s in that environment that the Irish have to contend with the problems created by urban sprawl.

The Mahon Tribunal was created primarily in response to allegations regarding payments to then-Minister Ray Burke, but had a wide mandate to investigate planning-related corruption throughout Dublin. It found rather a lot of it, but the odds are that what it uncovered is only a tiny amount of what was going on at the time.

I didn’t read the entire report, which is over 3,000 pages long, but did read the introduction, summary, the summary of recommendations, and some other sections.

The sections I read include many sections that are telling, hilarious, and sad. A number of these follow.

The first I remember fairly well from when I was living in Dublin:

[…] in February 1993, during the course of a Dublin County Council meeting, Cllr Trevor Sargent […] waved in the air a cheque, which had been sent to him by a developer, proclaiming that it was ‘part of the corruption in here.’ […] Cllr Sargent had to be escorted from the chamber for his own protection from some of his fellow councillors.

—4. Alan P. Mahon, et al. The Final Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments. Dublin: Government Publications Office, 22 March 2012.

That one strained belief at the time—not regarding the corruption itself, but that it could continue to go on. Relevant here is the fact that Sargent was a Green Party councillor, and that the Greens were then a relatively new political party, making it entirely plausible that Sargent hadn’t been exposed to the corruption by then inculcated in the cultures of the other parties—and that the other councillors would be irate at his statements given the likelihood that they were indeed on the take, and that their livelihoods might be threatened by his accusations.

The following three extracts are illustrative of the political environment in which the Tribunal was operating:

On several occasions, journalists, politicians and other individuals suggested that the Tribunal itself was complicit in arranging or facilitating the leaking of information. […] the Tribunal believes that at least on some occasions individuals attributed leaks to the Tribunal in an attempt to discredit it […]

—25. ibid.

The Tribunal’s efforts to establish the source of leaked information was successful in one instance, involving Mr Michael Bailey. In that instance, the Tribunal found that Mr Bailey himself was the source of the leaks in question. Mr Bailey had cynically used the leaks to question the integrity of the Tribunal and relied on them to delay furnishing information to the Tribunal.

—26. ibid.

[O]n 26 September 2006, the then Minister for State Mr Noel Tracy TD stated in the course of a radio interview […] that it was a well known fact that the Tribunal constantly leaked for political purposes […] when the Tribunal subsequently questioned Mr Tracy regarding his statements, he conceded that he had no information to support it and was unable to give any credible reasons for having made the allegation in the first place.

—26. ibid.

That last one in particular is quite something, given that a sitting Minister was clearly attempting to undermine the credibility of the Tribunal and in doing so was entirely prepared to go on the record with statements he later admitted had no basis.

The 16th chapter of the tribunal is focused on Liam Lawlor, who was under suspicion of having engaged in corrupt practices, and this section also has some gems. Note that I am not suggesting in the least that Mr. Lawlor was exceptional as a Dublin politician at the time.

An examination of other documentation made available to the Tribunal revealed the existence of twelve additional bank accounts of which there had been no mention by Mr Lawlor.

—2390. ibid.

Lawlor was imprisoned three times due to his refusal to furnish to the Tribunal the documentation regarding his financial affairs that the Tribunal requested. After the third period of imprisonment, it seemed clear that there were still missing records, and the report drily notes:

Following his release from prison, there followed a further series of correspondence between Mr Lawlor and the Tribunal.

—2393. ibid.

Overall the report comes across as trying to state only that which can be clearly proven, and unwilling to make unsubstantiated claims, which makes the following line all the more remarkable:

The fact that Mr Lawlor had an insatiable appetite for money was without doubt.

—2406. ibid.

I strongly suspect that this section, while stated in reference to Mr. Lawlor, was representative of the goings-on at the time:

The methods often used by Mr Lawlor to obtain and receive money were occasionally ingenious. These methods included the use of third party bank accounts, false and bogus invoices, the use of third party payees, the false use of names to endorse cheques, and falsely claiming that his own off-shore funds were in fact repayable loans made to him.

—2406. ibid.

That the state’s enforcement apparatus was, at the very least, functioning poorly, and was more likely part of the problem, is evident from the lack of prosecutions pursued prior to any of the high-profile cases exposed in the media, but is made even more clear by these statements from the report:

The Tribunal was satisfied that complaints made to the Gardai […] about Mr George Redmond, Mr Liam Lawlor and Cllr Finbarr Hanrahan were not thoroughly investigated by the Gardai […] The Tribunal was puzzled as to why the final Garda report went to such lengths to exonerate Mr Lawlor and Mr Redmond in the absence of a more comprehensive inquiry into complaints of corruption involving those two individuals.

—2457. ibid.

The report makes an obvious but crucial point in its summary regarding the amount of money at stake and the disparity between the money required to bribe politicians and the money gathered in profit:

[…] the financial rewards for the relevant landowners/developers were enormous by any standards […] While the potential financial gain was immeasurable, the outlay necessary to achieve the rezoning of the land in question (in the form of, in particular, payments to councillors) was, in most instances, relatively modest, often involving sums of IR£1,000 or IR£2,000 being paid to a handful of councillors.

—2514. ibid.

While the Mahon Tribunal primarily deals with property development and mostly Fianna Fáil politicians, corruption at the time was hardly limited to that sphere or that party—as the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal make clear.

The Mahon Tribunal report provides very solid evidence of the corruption, but I don’t know anyone in Ireland who would be surprised by this—as stated, it has been common knowledge for quite some time. Why has it been able to persist, and is Ireland in some relevant way radically different from other Western democracies?

The questions are intertwined, but the Irish “national character” is not the reason for the corruption. While there are certainly technical aspects of the way democracy is structured in Ireland that are part of the problem—and it is primarily those technical aspects the report addresses in its recommendations—the most important factor may be the political tribalism so pervasive in the country. This fosters corruption because the corrupt can shelter behind the loyalty accorded to their “side”, and because they can rely on their supporters to decry anti-corruption measures as politically-motivated attacks by the other “side”. Put another way, the partisan view of politics overrides other views and reduces everything to an inane “us versus them” mentality[2].

Having said that, it’s not at all clear that Ireland is “more corrupt” than other countries, despite the evidence of the various Tribunals. Certain aspects of its political culture are likely more corrupt that in other countries, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Political corruption is present throughout the West—elsewhere too, but the West tends to regard itself as more politically advanced than the rest of the world, and with that self-regard should come the responsibility to live up to its pretensions. The Mahon Tribunal’s turning over rocks in Ireland has lessons for all the Western democracies, each of which has its share of nasty wriggling things trying to hide from view.

Critical to this discussion is a definition of corruption. The final report of the Mahon Tribunal addresses this, and states that:

Aside from bribery, the Tribunal’s definition of corruption encompassed the following behaviour, or attempted behaviour: (1) destroying, hindering or perverting the integrity or fidelity of a person in the discharge of his duty; (2) the abuse of influence or power or duty by any person and; (3) inducing another to act dishonestly or unfaithfully. It also covered circumstances of control, influence or involvement with a person in the discharge of his duty to the extent that it gave rise to a reasonable inference of unequal access, or favouritism, or a set of circumstances detrimental to his duties.

—12. ibid.

That quite a broad definition, but a reasonable one. Unfortunately, the game of politics, as played almost everywhere, involves the trading of favors, deception, and myriad forms of influence. This is not to claim that corruption is inevitable, but rather that it is extremely close to the fundamental nature of politics itself[3].

Technical attempts to excise it, while worthwhile, will tend to failure. This can be seen in examples from other systems generally regarded as less corrupt than the Irish one as seen through the lens of the Mahon Tribunal. If, instead of paying them lump sums, the property developers had instead led the councillors and other participants to believe that upon retiring they might have lucrative consultancy jobs waiting for them, that would not technically have been bribery, and would probably not have broken any laws. But the outcome would have been quite similar—and this is how a significant chunk of the American system works.

Moving to another system, what about Britain’s entry into the Iraq War? That’s not generally regarded as an act of political corruption, because no overt bribery was alleged—but it certainly involved dishonesty, the hindering of the integrity of various parties, and the abuse of influence, power, and duty by a variety of extremely high-ranking politicians.

Nevertheless, some countries are less corrupt than others. There are two main potential explanations for this:

  • The characteristics of the country’s population make the difference.
  • The structure of the country’s political institutions make the difference.

The two are obviously intertwined, and the former often determines the latter. But since we know that power corrupts, it seems foolish in the extreme to depend on the strength of character of politicians to be the main bulwark against corruption. Which means structuring institutions to avoid corruption, and that means minimizing power concentration as much as possible. Ensure that individuals or groups cannot gain enough power to think themselves above the rules, and insist on accountability for everyone, at all times.

That can only be done with a significant increase in political participation, where a larger percentage of the population insists on inspecting, and criticizing, the work of the state and its agents.

The answer to corruption—to broken democracy—is more democracy. The answer to terrible decisions foisted upon the populace at large by small, self-interested groups is to deny small, self-interested groups the power to make such decisions. The answer to hidden actors and hidden actions resulting in disaster for the majority is to bring the actors and actions into the open, and insist on accountability as a fundamental principle.

Almost all politicians, of course, would nod and purport to agree with everything in the prior paragraph. Until it interfered with some prerogative of theirs, at which point they would find a rationale to oppose it. The same goes for any anti-corruption measures.

The fight against “corruption”, in truth, is not merely the fight against cash in brown paper bags being handed over to secure rezoning decisions. It’s about democracy itself, and requires a recognition that the current system has a ruling class, and that by definition the current system suits that ruling class extremely well, and that any changes to it will be resisted by some of them as a result.

When is power given up voluntarily? Rulers, “leaders”, do it almost never. But we do it all the time. We, as voters, as citizens, as primates susceptible to the most crass manipulations, give up our power over and over, and we do it most often by not protesting the expansion of the state’s power—and we do that most often because we’re scared. Not necessarily of the state itself, nor of our “leaders”, but of something else. Each other, perhaps, or some band of primates differentiated from us by some small detail.

Does this analysis have to lead to full-blown anarchism? I think it does, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe there’s a way to have a responsible state, one whose politicians and bureaucrats can be trusted not to enrich or empower themselves to the detriment of everyone else. Maybe responsible “leaders” are possible on a large scale, and maybe a sense of civic responsibility prevalent enough to ensure that most of the “leaders” adhere to it can be achieved.

But it won’t happen through waiting for the current ruling class to make it so. Only political engagement on a massive scale can move us that way, political engagement refusing to accept the current structure and the excuses of “that’s how things are done”, political engagement that isn’t only greatly inclusionary, but also deeply patient and willing to rein in “leaders” not only in the short term but even much later, when the ones we were sure we could trust turn out to have succumbed to the lures of power and need to be returned to a simpler life.

Making that happen is impossible in a stratified society; the first steps would have to involve merging those strata[4].

This is deeply frustrating to write, as almost any engagement with the political has become for me, because I can see only part of what needs to be done, and it’s not the part that seems most important. There’s a bridge, between the personal and the political, and I can’t find it.

The personal aspects are all relatively obvious; accept responsibility for your actions; understand how privileged you are[5]; treat others as you would wish to be treated; practice integrity; share—I could go on, but everyone knows those things at some level anyway, and most act against them only when they can rationalize doing so in some way—normally a way provided by some aspect of our political system[6].

The political aspects are those I outlined above. But the path to connect the two remains unknown, and that seems an awful failure—not mine alone, by any means, but mine, yours, ours.

Ireland has had multiple leaders whose political corruption is quite easy to see, with occasional details whose amusement value must be acknowledged[7]. But corruption is not an Irish phenomenon, and—again—all the evidence suggests that corruption follows power. At the least, the very least, we must try to hold those with power accountable, always, for how they use it.

[1] The lead author of a 2006 European Environmental Agency report characterized Dublin as a worst-case scenario of urban sprawl. See http://www.politics.ie/forum/dublin/9125-dublin-cited-worst-case-scenario-urban-sprawl.html or numerous other online sources.

[2] This partisan mentality is also obvious elsewhere, as in the conservative versus liberal arguments in the US.

[3] My definition of what politics is: the mechanisms by which power is distributed in a society.

[4] Yes, all we need to do is first realize Marx’s dream of a classless society…

[5] Almost by definition, anyone reading this is tremendously privileged. Even if you don’t feel that way; your not feeling that way is part of the harness our cultural/social/political system has put you in.

[6] Thus supplying an alternative definition of “politics”: a system that provides excuses for us to act immorally.

[7] For example, the fact the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, while he was Finance Minister earlier in his career, didn’t have a bank account and dealt only in cash.

One Response to “Corruption: Ireland’s Mahon Tribunal”

  1. Niall Says:

    I was looking forward to your take on this.

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