Elaine Byrne, TCD, Author of ‘Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010’


The title of this MacGill session is Why Mahon and Moriarty Was Allowed To Happen?  But this is not about Mahon and Moriarty. This is about the Ryan Report, the Murphy Report, the Ferns Report, and the Cloyne Report. It is about the Morris Tribunal. It is about what happened with Dr Neary in Drogheda and it is about every single inquiry in public life that we have had in Ireland in the last fifteen years. It is about power.

In the Ryan Report, for instance, there was an incredible piece of testimony from a garda; a policeman, the upholder of law and order. He wrote to the Department of Education in 1949 about his concerns regarding an industrial school. A garda is writing to the Department of Education about his concerns about an industrial school – not the other way around.

“For some time past I’ve been receiving complaints from parents having children in Greenmount Industrial Schools. They look cold and miserable looking. Now I’m a particular friend of the brothers in Greenmount and have no wish to do them any injury to them and their good work. I do hope this matter will be treated in confidence as I do not wish it to be known that it was I that brought that matter to attention.”

That is what Official Ireland did in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s in relation to child sex abuse in this country. And when people, awkward people, kept asking questions, people like Frank Crummey, the social worker, they were threatened with physical violence. His family faced social ostracisation when he spoke about child abuse with regard to the Christian Brothers 40 years ago.

The other interesting thing about the Ryan Report was the Department of Education’s attitude to people who complained. People like Tim O’Rourke. According to the Ryan Report, it was not about how to investigate his complaint, but what to do about a troublemaker who had complained. And that was Official Ireland’s attitude to many things in public life – whether it was the Church, the Gardaí, politics or any other institution of power.

Often it was outsiders who spoke the truth. It was people like Eugene McErlean, from Northern Ireland, the former AIB internal auditor who blew the whistle on fraudulent practices within the bank in the early 2000s.

Or Patrick McGuinness, the former accountant for the beef baron Larry Goodman. He was interviewed by Susan O’Keeffe, then a journalist in the UK, as part of her World in Action exposé which ultimately lead to the establishment of the Beef Tribunal. Not a journalist in Ireland, a journalist in the UK. Patrick McGuinness had emigrated to Canada. He was unable to say what he wanted to say from Ireland.

There were people like Joe Murray and Padraig Mannion in RTE who early on raised questions concerning fraud within the meat industry. And for their troubles an apology – I’ll come back to apologies in a moment – an apology was demanded and their employer, RTE, disciplined them.

Irish public life, such as Joe McAnthony, was punished for telling the truth. In 1973 Joe McAnthony published stories in the Sunday Independent about bribes to politicians and corruption in planning. The Moriarty, Mahon and McCracken Tribunals confirmed what he had written, forty years later. In this interview he spoke about his experience, of being the troublemaker, of asking questions.

“My life was pretty much over as a journalist. Everything I worked on in RTE was closed down. I couldn’t work in the Independent anymore. Nobody would hire me. I had four children. So we had to go. I was essentially expelled from Ireland.”

And that is what Official Ireland does to those who speak truth to power. We are still doing it. People like Joe McAnthony and Padraig Mannion and Joe Murray and Sheenagh McMahon – the whistleblower in the Morris Tribunal, Michael Smith, and others – should be given official acknowledgement for their citizenship and the service they have given to this country.

Whether it is a reception with the President, an acknowledgement by the Taoiseach – I don’t know what it is. But those individuals should be thanked for what they have endured over many, many years.

But it is not just in the past that we dismiss people. It is not just the past where we have attitudes towards things that we form together. Groupthink – that wonderful word that has made a regular appearance in Ireland.

We saw it last October. In the RTE Frontline television programme, with 900,000 viewers on a Monday night, Sean Gallagher was asked a question on the basis of a tweet. The tweet was with regard to a claim about fundraising. The reaction by many was, ‘Well, it was the way he used the word envelope. It was the way he reacted. It was his fault.’ Not the process or the context of why he reacted that way in the first place.

Then another incident happened – the Fr Reynolds episode. Then people were kind of going – ‘Well, hang on a second. Maybe there’s a little bit more to this.’

The Presidential election was on a Thursday. The media ban kicked in Tuesday afternoon. Sean Gallagher was 13% ahead in the polls the weekend before the RTE Frontline programme. A large number of people changed their mind because of what happened on that programme that night.

The person who made the claim of unorthodox fundraising by Sean Gallagher was a convicted fuel smuggler. He was subsequently found to have been in receipt of €3,000 from Martin McGuinness for fuel during the Presidential campaign.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld the complaint by Sean Gallagher on two accounts – the tweet on RTE Frontline and the incident on Today with Pat Kenny the next day. It said:

“It was unfair to the complainant and was indicative of a lack of objectivity and of impartiality towards the candidate on the part of the presenter of that programme.”

There was an apology by the Director General of RTE. But somehow there is still this attitude out there that it was the way Sean Gallagher reacted, it was his fault. It should not matter who the individual is. The process of election must be above reproach. We were electing our head of our state.

There is a second incident that has exposed how Official Ireland suggests we should think. Anne Harris wrote an article in the Sunday Independent in June, entitled: ‘Anne Harris – The Real Issue Is Press Freedom’. These were her first paragraphs:

“Earlier last week, I had my first conversation with James Osborne, the former chairperson of Independent News & Media, who was voted out in an O’Brien-led boardroom bloodbath at the AGM. In the course of the conversation, he informed me that in April of this year Denis O’Brien, the major shareholder in INM, had called him to get him to “pull” an article in this newspaper.

The article related to Denis O’Brien’s borrowings from Anglo Irish Bank. A spokesperson for Denis O’Brien yesterday denied that this took place. Osborne says he talked him down, telling him he was behaving like a “spoiled teenager”.

The article was published under the heading ‘Anglo Irish’s Top 13 Buccaneer Borrowers’. It was fair to Denis O’Brien, making clear that he was one of those paying the bank back. O’Brien knew of it because we had contacted him for comment. This is the man who controls the largest media group in the country. The issue is no longer one of media ownership. The issue is freedom of the press.”

That was the editor of the best-selling newspaper in this country alleging media interference by an individual who has the largest shareholding in that newspaper.

Not a single other newspaper, or other media outlet, picked up on that story. Because Anne Harris wrote it. Because it was in the Sunday Independent.  And because Official Ireland has decided that this is an internal, boardroom battle with the Sunday Independent and, you know, that’s just how things are and ‘sure, that’s the Sunday Independent’.

It is not just in the past that we have dismissed certain views and attitudes towards things. We are still doing it.

So I just want to let you know about media freedom and what it means. These are quotes from the libel letter that was sent on Denis O’Brien’s behalf to me last year. It was widely reported at the time so I don’t think I’m breaching any confidence.

I remember getting it. I was at the Political Science Association of Ireland annual conference in the RoyalIrishAcademy and I got it on my mobile phone. Somebody within the Independent group forwarded the document to me. The title of the email was ‘Remember to breathe’. As it happened, Phil Hogan was the guest speaker at that conference and I remember putting my hand over my mouth while I was reading this six-page letter and thinking about my €3,000 overdraft and wondering if Denis O’Brien owns €3billion or €4billion.

The largest media owner of this state has sent letters like this in the last 10 years to 17 different journalists, according to the National Union of Journalists in Ireland. The purpose of letters like this is to stop you writing; to create self-doubt about what you are writing.

‘Dear Sir,

We act for Denis O’Brien. We refer to the edition of the Sunday Independent published on Sunday, 16th of October, 2011. The article written by Elaine Byrne which appears on page 14, under the following headline – So Who’s Afraid of Denis O’Brien? Enda Kenny Is. The article is characterised by an appalling lack of objectivity.

This is demonstrated in Ms Byrne’s repeated references to the Moriarty Tribunal report in support of criticisms of our client. Her sneering and sarcastic description of him as a patriot in reference to his attendance at official Fine Gael fundraising events ignores the reality of the matter which is that all the bidders of the GSM licence attended the same Fine Gael fundraisers our client did on the part of the broader ESAT Digifone consortium. There’s nothing unique or clandestine about that. And the deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was is a disgrace…

It is also obvious from her comments, under other forums, notably an avalanche of commentary via her Twitter account that Ms Byrne has a personal animus against our client and is clearly pursuing an agenda without any balance or objectivity. Her snide and uninformed comments in relation to our client’s tax affairs are further evidence of this. Taken in its entirety, Ms Byrne’s article is truly an objectionable piece of journalism, strewn with factual inaccuracies and devoid of any balance or objectivity.

We hereby call upon you to publish, in a prominent position, a full retraction, an apology in the next edition of the Sunday Independent. And let us have your proposals to address this grave wrong in the terms to be agreed with this office.’

There was no apology and there was no retraction.

I grew up in a pub and have a very intimate understanding about alcoholism. It is a disease with denial as its embedded defence mechanism.  Denial punishes those who seek to challenge the behaviour of the alcoholic. It is easier to avoid than acknowledge, to ignore than confront. And eventually the problem grows into the large white elephant in the small room that everybody walks around and kneels under, while pretending that everything is perfectly normal.

It is that pretence that enables and allows the alcoholic to function, because the enabler and facilitator subconsciously accept this behaviour and then ultimately become responsible for it. The enablers and facilitators are a part of the problem, not just the alcoholic.

The refusal to recognise the fundamental difference between right and wrong poisons all those who come into contact with the alcoholic, and excuses are made for the behaviour in order to protect a reputation.

Enablers and facilitators become obsessed with the “maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of reputation” – in the words of the Ryan Report.

All other considerations are subordinated to those priorities and this enabling phenomenon has many forms but always the same outcome – it allows the alcoholic to avoid the consequences of their actions and prolongs the behaviour in the first place. It also gives impunity to those who were responsible for it in the first place. It prolongs the fundamentally flawed system. This is what Official Ireland is.

Official Ireland is predominantly male, over 50 and earners over €100,000. For the most part, it includes the speakers at this MacGill summer school and those that attend it.

Official Ireland is characterised by the sameness of people in positions of power which means a uniformity of decision-making. This closed-minded conformism dismisses and belittles anyone who opposes the group consensus.

These awkward people with alternative views.


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