By John Kelly
Two images captured the minds of the Irish people in the last two weeks and both concerned Padraig Flynn, "Pee Wee," as they call the fast-moving Euro commissioner in the west of Ireland. One was his appearance on Gay Byrne’s "Late Late Show," where, as he preened himself in typical showman fashion, he disparagingly dismissed claims that he had accepted a donation of £50,000 from a property developer.
He committed a cardinal error when he claimed that Tom Gilmartin, a Sligo-born developer living in Luton, England, and his wife were both ill. That really put the cat among the pigeons, as Flynn might say himself.
He didn’t just shoot himself in the foot. He drove a stake through his highly political heart.
Gilmartin, a man who once tried to convince high-ranking members of the Fianna Fail government during the 1980s into a multi-million-pound development on Bachelor’s Walk in the heart of Dublin, shot angrily out of his self-imposed anonymity.
Not alone were he and his wife perfectly healthy, but he had definitely presented the present Euro commissioner with £50,000 for the use of the Fianna Fail party. What’s more, he threatened, he was going to give evidence to the Flood Tribunal, currently investigating the allegations of a former company director concerning further private donations to another former Fianna Fail minister, Ray Burke.
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The second indelible image was that of the same lofty Flynn, his face bathed intake harsh light of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, haughtily stepping into an elevator, effectively closing off the questions from an RTE interviewer and, by extension, the Irish people.
The Fianna Fail party had carried out a detailed check. None of the 50 grand could be found. There wasn’t a trace of it. So, where had it gone? Surely not into the private coffers of Padraig Flynn?
The performances of the Mayo TD illustrated a truism that has long been apparent to any serious Irish political observer. The worst enemies of Fianna Fail are often those who have represented it at the highest level.
The coal face workers are the backbenchers. Even so, their primary aim is not the welfare of the party, with some rare, shining examples. Their goal is to get themselves elected and, once there, to retain their seats. They will fight tooth and nail to achieve this, often against their own party running mates in the same constituency. The Fianna Fail party has never been as united as it seemed to be.
Now there’s a saying within the party: spin a tribunal, where it stops, nobody knows.
We are now up and going with almost as many tribunals as there are questions. A salutary exercise in the democratic process, to use Dail speak.
It is better fun than the sickening moral posturing we have witnessed, ad nauseam, on our TV screens in holy Ireland, courtesy of the United States Senate. We thought that we were the greatest hypocrites in the world until we shuddered at that sad epiphany of cloying goodness emanating from Washington.
At least here in Ireland we have the vision of "Battling Bertie," the leader of what had seemed to be a safe coalition government, grimly refuting allegations that he had also sought a cash donation from Gilmartin when the property developer was pushing his idea of a major Dublin center city renewal.
No truth in it at all, Ahern snarled to a packed Dail, challenging Gilmartin to prove his allegations. Opposition deputies were publicly pronouncing on the airwaves that they were on an amber light for a general election. The deputy leader of the government, Tanaiste Mary Harney, sat silently beside the taoiseach as he concluded his powerful address, sullenly refusing to join in the Fianna Fail clapping that ended the leader’s speech.
But she later insisted that she still trusts Ahern and that her party, which occupies four critical seats, holding the balance of power along with independents, will not walk out of government lightly, forcing a general election that nobody seems to seek.
The big reservation on her part is that nobody really knows what else is coming "down the tracks," as she described it. She also admitted that relations between the two parties, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats, are now strained.
Very likely, they will become even more taut as further details of the convoluted dealings of various prominent Fianna Fail representatives during the 1980s, when the party was in power on its own steam, become public.
No more than in recent tribunals that proceeded them, the questions, the answers and the sentences, if any, might just as well have been tried out in any criminal court in the land.
With the exception of the Beef Tribunal, no criminal prosecutions were initiated as the result of investigations on foot of evidence offered, even though the tribunal cost Irish taxpayers millions.
The real gainers are the luckier members of the legal profession, the solicitors, the barristers, and even the note-takers who occupy a building like Dublin Castle for months. The Tribunal chairman then produces a report, which is duly synthesized in the national newspapers. Some journalists rewrite the reports into weighty books that generate further unanswered questions — and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.
So, what is the real purpose?
You don’t have to be a cynic to speculate that that the main aim, so far as the politicians who establish such tribunals are concerned, is to avoid criminal proceedings.
So, here we are again, the innocent, disbelieving Irish public, caught between the Flood Tribunal, which is investigating political donations alleged to have been made by one property company, dovetailing into the Moriarty Tribunal, which is investigating the affairs of Ben Dunne and former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who once famously said, "Thanks, big fella," after a particularly welcome personal donation from the department store magnate.
There are an increasing number of lawyers, purring around Ireland in fancy cars who are surely thanking the denizens of Dail Eireann for their generous willingness to set up tribunals.
But as Mary Harney said, nobody knows what is coming down the tracks anymore. The only thing we can be sure of is that there is yet another train heading for yet another mystery destination.