With the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report comes the realisation that perhaps it was all simply a waste of time. The Tribunal, which was set up as the ‘Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments’, was essentially established to investigate claims of political corruption within the planning system. It had over 400 witnesses come before it and having sat for a total of over 900 days over the course of its near fifteen year duration; it is the longest running public inquiry the Irish judiciary have ever undertaken. Since 1997, it has racked up a legal costs bill in excess of 250 million euro, and the final report has seemingly revealed nothing the general public haven’t been virtually certain of for many years now.
The majority of its key findings involve many of the biggest names in the Irish political sphere over the last couple of decades. Padraig Flynn, former Minister and EU Commissioner, “wrongly and corruptly” received a payment of 50,000 pounds from Tom Gilmartin, which he used for his personal benefit. Former TD and Fianna Fáil deputy, Liam Lawlor was given 40,000 pounds by Frank Dunlop and further received 41,000 pounds from Owen O’Callaghan. The Tribunal found that Lawlor’s relationship with both parties was entirely corrupt, and various other payments he claimed were ‘political donations’ from Arlington PLC were anything but. O’Callaghan also donated some 80,000 pounds to the Fianna Fáil party while lobbying for state subvention for a development in Neilstown, having been pressurised to do so by various political figures. Former TD, GV Wright accepted 5,000 pounds from Christopher Jones, which was deemed corrupt, along with similar findings in relation to eleven councillors. Most notably however, the Tribunal fell short of a finding of corruption for former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, holding him to have failed to truthfully account for over 165,000 pounds, despite dozens of supporting testimonies from friends of Ahern supposedly offering him ‘dig-outs’.
This is not, it would seem, an acceptable conclusion for the Irish public, especially given the extreme length and astonishingly high costs of the Tribunal. It would appear that at the very least they expected that Ahern would be hung out to dry, and his reputation destroyed completely irrevocably. Instead, Ahern has barely received a slap on the wrist.
It is the findings relating to Ahern which have particularly established a feeling that the Tribunal was merely an incredibly expensive white elephant; that the entire inquiry was a giant circus, in which legal teams had a field day, safe in the knowledge that former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy had chosen not provide stipulations to curtail their fees should the tribunal last more than a couple of months.
You must then factor in that the Gardai cannot use any part of the report to prosecute anyone involved, and must instead mount their own independent investigations, gathering evidence themselves and using the report merely as a vague guide on who or where to go to next. Any offence they find to have been committed must be an offence under the law in place when it was allegedly committed, and twenty years ago you could not make inferences when a public official received money, as you can now.
With all this considered, one would be forgiven for questioning what the point of opening the inquiry in the first place was. It is very simple to say that no tribunal is worth the amount of money this one has cost the state, but was there really any other option? To condemn its existence based on its cost surely suggests our priorities are not set entirely straight. Not only does it represent a very pessimistic approach to the accountability of those in power, but also it is quite a sad state of affairs to consider ourselves better off without the truth, especially when it concerns the failings of Irish democracy for the last thirty years.
The costs of this Tribunal simply reflect the way the country has been run for far too long, however, and we can’t but acknowledge that the electorate consistently rewarded this brand of politics, even when the details of the morally questionable actions of the politicians topping polls were in the public domain. It is ultimately this that the Mahon report should change.
The Report is particularly shocking not because people were unaware that this was going on, but because we were unaware it was so “endemic and systemic,” and the consequences for national politics are severe. It is embarrassing for us as a nation that so many in the past turned a blind eye to what was going on unabated around us. These findings have undoubtedly caused inconceivable damage to public trust and confidence but if it took fifteen years and a considerable fees bill to force the public to take their head out of the sand, perhaps it was indeed worthwhile.
Exposing this morally bankrupt culture in Irish democracy in such a way that the electorate can’t ignore will force the voting public to perhaps consider their choices a little more carefully, and to take issues of integrity into account at the ballot box. The information we truly gained from the inquiry is invaluable, once we act upon it. It is unlikely we will ever see a Tribunal like this again. If publishing the findings of the Mahon tribunal has done nothing more than prevent such widespread abuses of power again, by laying out the astonishing practices over the last thirty years in a manner which cannot be brushed under the carpet, it has been entirely worthwhile.