Seeds of the Irish crisis were sown long ago

Political Corruption in Ireland, 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp?, by Elaine A. Byrne, Manchester University Press, £16.99 (paperback), £65 (hardback)

Corruption in Ireland predates independence. Yet cronyism and clientelism have been tolerated, even admired, throughout much of the republic’s history. That may be coming to an end, as its citizens learn how the tawdry entwinements of Irish politics and business brought the “Celtic Tiger” to its knees in 2010. If so, this book, scholarly and politically alert, forensic and fascinating, will furnish a well-tempered blade.

Elaine Byrne, lecturer in politics at Trinity College Dublin, reminds us how much British rule depended on patronage. This engendered an ambivalence towards central authority and “a legacy of negative association with informing”. Early on, Sinn Féin undermined the Irish party at Westminster for taking “the Saxon shilling” and practising “Dublin Castle jobbery”.

Yet the probity of modern Ireland’s founders was scrupulous. In 1921, in the heat of the war against Britain, Michael Collins found time to berate embryonic Irish government departments for shoddy budget estimates. After the 1922-23 civil war, ministers who had lived under armed guard were each sent a bill for meals totalling £4 9s 6d. The first generation had such a sense of state that “they believed that integrity did not need to be legislatively defined”. But it did.

Byrne argues that a narrow definition of corruption as the exchange of public goods for private gain left public life open to influence-peddling and “regulatory capture” of the state that would lead eventually to 2010, when Ireland lost its economic sovereignty and became a ward of the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Yet much of what caused this – a property bubble inflated by cheap loans through Irish banks, with the Fianna Fáil government obligingly opening tax loopholes, keeping regulators at bay and scorning “begrudgers” while filling both the party and national coffers – was not against the law.

So, how did it come to this? There is no single reason. The economic autarchy of the state built around Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil led to the discretionary allocation of scarce resources. The puritan ethic of the revolutionaries saw no need for conflict of interest laws or competitive tendering. The localism of Irish politics – in part a defence mechanism against British-woven webs of patronage – encouraged political “brokers” to open access to power. This is not usually the worst kind of corruption; as the book’s subtitle suggests, it is mostly about pulling strings.

In the closed shop of post-civil war politics, moreover, too much of Ireland’s social and political capital was invested in the Catholic Church – which exploited the link between Irish political and religious freedom – and Fianna Fáil. Partly this was deference to authority. Byrne gives a wonderfully deadpan account of how John Charles McQuaid, longtime Archbishop of Dublin, made a fortune using insider information to speculate in railway stocks during the second world war. The chairman of one of the railways protested it would have been “discourteous to allow them [the bishops] to have the first intimation of reorganisation proposals through the Press”. The Archdiocese of Dublin, Byrne remarks, “had a good war”.

The press mostly treated politicians on the take with the sort of discretion French media reserved for the sexual peccadilloes of their politicians. Columnist Mary Kenny was typically indulgent of the many indulgences of four-times Taoiseach Charles Haughey. “There’s a lot to be said for a man who quietly orders Krug ’62,” she wrote after lunching with him in 1972. This, of a man a later public inquiry would find was in receipt of close to 200 times his public salary.

Yet voters rewarded rogues and treated whistleblowers as prigs. The nickname of Haughey’s nemesis, Garret FitzGerald – Garret the Good – was affectionate but more than a little mocking. Admiration for the “cute ’hoor”, by contrast, was unbounded, placed in a tradition of social banditry that undermined class hierarchy. If the politician in question was getting schools and roads built locally, and his clients built on an extra wing to his house, good luck to him.

The turning point came in the 1980s and 1990s, with the rising cost of political campaigns, which led parties across Europe to bend and break rules to finance themselves. In Ireland, the stakes rose as Fianna Fáil and its rivals moved from the beef barons to the construction industry. Political and social deference transferred to bankers and builders – and led the country to perdition.

Among the many angry books to poke through the debris of the crisis that still engulfs Ireland, this is the most scholarly explanation of how it happened.

The writer is the FT’s international affairs editor

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