Sunday 27 March 2011

The Political Fallout Arising from the Moriarty Tribunal

Arising out of the publication of the findings of The Moriarty Tribunal, there has been renewed calls for a ban on corporate donations. It's a subject that has been discussed previously on this blog - (The Funding of Political Parties). In my view the central issue remain the same - precisely what is such a ban supposed to achieve? As things stand, it all has the appearance of a solution in search of a problem. But perhaps it's not even as innocent as all that.

First of all there is the response of An Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny. When asked if Michael Lowry (one of the key figures of the Moriarty Report) should resign, in view of what The Irish Times and other commentators consider to be "damning findings against him", Enda Kenny's answer was that "in an ideal world Mr Lowry would resign but this is not an ideal world." (Irish Times - 24/3/11).

It is also reported in the Irish Independent that he later clarified his position: 
I made the point that in an ideal world a deputy in this situation should resign. So I intend to speak in the debate myself when it comes up," he said. 
Mr Kenny was asked to clarify if he believed that Mr Lowry should resign but he declined to go further, saying only that his Government had referred the report to the the Revenue, the gardai and the DPP. 
He added: "Obviously, I made the point that Deputy Lowry, who is centrally involved in this Moriarty Report, where there are serious allegations, should go into the House and answer those charges," he said. - Irish Independent 26/3/11

Exactly what all this has to do with idealism only Enda Kenny can explain. In this day and age, it is generally expected of political leaders that they should be, first and foremost, masters of reality. They should be fearless in challenging perceptions, not least because the ideal state of affairs simply does not and cannot exist. Instead of taking the moral high ground - as he would have done in his previous role as the official chief critic of Fianna Fáil-led administrations - Enda Kenny has turned philosophical. In the process he has flunked his first major test (and not even a particularly arduous test) of leadership.

It is fortunate however that in Ireland, when politicians let it fall, there is always the good old Irish Times to pick up the baton. In an article by Noel Whelan, entitled Government must prioritise ban on corporate donationsa speech by former Fine Gael leader (and current Minister for Finance) Michael Noonan, from as far back as 2001 is quoted at length:
"ALL OVER the world, it is recognised that financial support from business to politicians is perceived by the public to have one purpose [namely] the securing of commercial advantage. Claims that such donations are made from disinterested motives are simply not believed. As the lurid tribunal scandals play out before our eyes, one thing is clear. We cannot restore politics until the perceived link between political contributions and public policy is broken." - Michael Noonan, February 9th, 2001. First press conference on succeeding to the leadership of Fine Gael. Quoted in The Irish Times, 26/3/11
Naturally The Irish Times is devastated by the stance adopted by the newly-elected government, in relation to the Moriarty Report and Michael Lowry in particular. They go on to cite several u-turns on the issue by Fine Gael since Michael Noonan's solemn declaration of 2001:
Sadly, it did not last long and Fine Gael quietly resumed accepting corporate donations. Fine Gael also returned to the defence of the party’s right to accept support from big businesses and, like Fianna Fáil, was dismissive of assertions that such support was tainted by the suggestion of influence or access. 
At last year’s MacGill Summer School, Fine Gael’s environment spokesman Phil Hogan said Fine Gael was opposed to the then government’s proposals to ban corporate donations, saying that his party made no apology and offered no favours in return for accepting them. In advance of last month’s election, however, Fine Gael again changed its policy on corporate donations – promising along with all other parties to introduce a ban.The Irish Times, 26/3/11

Returning to Michael Noonan's speech however, I can kind of see why Fine Gael may have dropped that particular 'lofty goal' - and before entering government too, not after. They are the kind of words that fall flat almost as soon as they leave the mouth of whoever uttered them. Maybe he just forgot to add the parenthesis in the ideal world to the comments he made at the time.

He did speak of breaking the 'perceived link' between political contribution (financial presumably) and public policy. But what about the real link, regardless of how it is perceived? We know that Fine Gael doesn't like the real world very much, but it's the only one we have and it's the only one we are in any position to influence. Also, it's not just public policy that has been influenced and corrupted by cronyism and graft. It would appear that it has spread to the day-to-day functioning of government.

The Irish Times tells us that "Moriarty’s findings are reminder that links between business and politics must be broken." Unfortunately that's only ever likely to happen in the 'ideal world' of a Fine Gael leader. More unfortunately that world appears to be almost as muddied and confused as the one that The Irish Times lives in.

Politics and business are inseparable allies. Furthermore, the two are also inseparable from the fabric of the wider society in which they are rooted. Just because some people have made 'politics' their 'business' doesn't alter that fact either. Irish school-goers of a certain age will possibly remember the cartoon depiction in the history text books, of an elderly gentleman going over his last will and testament with his solicitor: "I leave the family farm to my eldest son and to my second son I bequeath my Dáil seat."

Political economy was a term popular in the 19th century to describe a certain preoccupation and field of study. Wikipedia describes it as the study of "production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process." It is also said to have originated in moral philosophy; implying that the problems that were taxing the great minds of the time, could no longer be addressed by reference to morality alone.

One of those who employed the methods of political economy was Karl Marx. In his study of Capital he describes the relations that people enter into with each other, and with society in the course of procuring a livelihood:
This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all. - Capital, vol I - The Buying and Selling of Labour Power.

Of course all this pre-supposes a 'pre-established harmony' and Marx goes on to explain, in considerable detail, why a society based on the capitalist mode of production invariably generates disharmony. Banning corporate donation to political parties will not eliminate this disharmony. It might even perpetuate it. Harmony and disharmony walk hand-in-hand and are themselves subject to the vagaries of change.

As a matter of fact, both businesses and political parties are corporate entities in the sense that both have separate legal identities (with all the privileges and obligations that that entails) to distinguish them from the individual members who make up the collective. The days are long gone when such entities could function as private and personal fiefdoms of a single, powerful individual - be it a benevolent patriarch or a ruthless godfather of crime.

Finally, to repeat a point I have made previously; allegations of corruption that have been investigated in recent years (and at considerable expense), by tribunals such as that headed by Moriarty did not involve corporate donations to political parties. The issue of contention was alleged under-the-counter payments to private individuals, using their position, office or influence to procure monetary reward. It is actually quite incorrect to refer to such payments as 'corporate' or to imply that they constitute 'donations'.

So while the current state of affairs is hardly ideal, one might suggest that it could be rectified by any combination of measures; among which could involve political parties enforcing discipline within their ranks.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

2 comments:

Lender said...
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