After almost two decades of tribunals and the erosion of public confidence in the probity of public life, the government published the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill last week, designed to modernise anti-corruption legislation and to implement some of the tribunal recommendations.
Elaine Byrne's historical study of corruption in Ireland is accordingly perfectly timed. There is a popular narrative to the effect that Ireland was relatively corruption-free in the early decades of the state's history. The generation of politicians who alternated in government up to the 1960s consisted mainly of veterans from the revolutionary period who, it is presumed, had little interest in personal enrichment.
The country was a threadbare republic with limited economic activity and a small government sector. There was little for public officials to steal. Prosperity, when it finally arrived, brought corruption in its wake.
Elaine Byrne does not subscribe to this happy rendition of Irish history which is contradicted by extensive research undertaken by economists trying to explain the incidence of corruption around the world.
They have concluded that corruption is more prevalent in poorer countries and that richer countries with severe corruption problems are not so common. Byrne recounts tales of widespread pre-independence corruption, dating back to the bribery of those who voted Grattan's parliament out of existence and adopted the 1800 Act of Union. The British regime in Ireland, as with empires through the ages, relied on patronage and the recruitment of local elites through fair means or foul. This study gives a succinct account of the scandals of the last 20 years and of the various tribunal reports. What readers will find fascinating, because less familiar, are the earlier chapters recounting political corruption in the pre-1960s threadbare republic, and there was plenty.
The initial outbreak of post-revolutionary morality morphed into a regime of discretionary tariffs on foreign trade, import and export quotas and licences, a delicious episode of gold exploration licenses in Wicklow, all providing plentiful opportunities for looking after supporters and relatives.
The miraculous transformation of public subscriptions into private control of the Irish Press group also dates from this period.
When the Great Southern Railway, pre-cursor of CIE and still a private company in the 1940s, saw its shares fluctuate in response to government policy shifts, it was alleged that advance information was made available selectively and a tribunal ensued.
One lucky investor was the archdiocese of Dublin, led by one John Charles McQuaid. The tribunal established that the Archbishop (among others) was tipped off in advance by a railway official but no action was taken. Sharedealing profits which were made by the archdiocese (not by the Archbishop personally, it appears) could perhaps be attributed to divine inspiration rather than to inside information.
The 1940s saw other celebrated cases, including allegations of corrupt behaviour surrounding the Lockes distillery in Kilbeggan. Valuable export licences for scarce whiskey stocks appeared to have been granted in shady circumstances. Political corruption was a big political issue around this time and a factor in Fianna Fáil's defeat at the 1948 general election.
Planning corruption was not much of an issue since planning permission was available without fuss. That changed with the highly restrictive 1963 Planning Act, which placed extraordinary discretionary powers in the hands of appointed and elected officials. At the same time, the European economy was moving rapidly towards free trade, which meant the end of tariffs, import and export quotas and the licence regime left over from the wartime economy.
The Planning Act was a more than adequate substitute in terms of corruption opportunities and it is clear that planning has since become the principal vector of political corruption in Ireland. Other areas in which items of economic value, such as radio or mobile phone licences, are distributed either free or at low prices, have also had to be investigated by tribunals.
Political scientists and lawyers tend to propose legislation, transparency and powerful oversight bodies as the solution to political corruption. Economists are more cynical: they think that if occasions of sin are plentiful, sins will be committed.
No public official or group of officials, elected or appointed, should be in a position to distribute economic value on a discretionary basis. It is too much to expect the levels of virtue required to resist the temptations that are created. Licences should be auctioned rather than allocated free to deserving applicants. A planning system which adds value to land through an administrative decision is a corruption-machine and it is time to devise something which removes the temptation.
Elaine Byrne has written an entertaining volume on a serious topic, shedding light on some little-known, and at times hilarious, episodes in independent Ireland's battle with political ethics.
Elaine Byrne, Political Corruption in Ireland
1922-2010, Manchester University Press,