Aside from Bertie's money, the issue is equality
What is most corrupt in Irish politics is how we have used our vast wealth, allowing huge inequalities to exist in health and education
As of the time of writing, the election campaign is likely to be dominated at least initially by questions about Bertie Ahern's finances. It is assumed PJ Mara, the Fianna Fáil director of elections, will insist this issue be disposed of for, if questions remain unanswered, Fianna Fáil is unlikely to be heard on anything else. An insistence that these are matters to be dealt with by the Planning Tribunal won't wash – or shouldn't wash.
The public is entitled to answers to questions about their Taoiseach's personal finances before it decides whether to vote for him or not. They deserve to be reassured that the Taoiseach did not get monies improperly when minister for finance in 1992-1994 and that he got possession of his home through legitimate means.
If, by the time of publication, Bertie Ahern has not addressed these issues comprehensively and taken questions from journalists on the issues arising, he will have blighted his party's campaign, greatly compromised its chances of returning to office and frustrated the open operation of democracy by giving the public all the information relevant to their decision on how to vote. The dismissive comment on Monday 30 April about the propriety of what happened was hardly convincing.
Issues of personal propriety in public life are important but they are not the most important. Neither are issues of personal corruption in politics the worst manifestations of corruption. What is most corrupt in Irish politics at present is how we have used the vast wealth accumulated over the last decade-and-a-half and still allow so many people to exist on incomes that are derisory, allow such huge inequalities in health, housing and education, how we continue to treat the Traveller community, how we largely have ignored some of the most egregious manifestations of criminality and neglected the nation's children.
There are almost three-quarters of a million people here living on incomes below the equivalent of €11,000 for a single adult and €29,000 for two adults and three children. For most people in the middle classes, it is inconceivable that people would be able to survive on such incomes.
A report published last year by Bank of Ireland Private Banking shows that, in a survey of the top eight leading OECD nations, Ireland is ranked the second wealthiest, behind Japan and ahead of the UK, US, Italy, France, Germany and Canada, showing an average wealth per head of nearly €150,000.
The report estimates that the number of millionaires in Ireland (not including the value of private residences) is somewhere in the region of 30,000. Of those, it estimates that there are over 300 individuals with a net worth in excess of €30m, a further 2,700 with a net worth of between €5m and €30m, with the remaining having a net worth of between €1m and €5m. Interestingly, if the definition of millionaire included principal private residence, the number of millionaires in the Irish economy could be as high as 100,000.
By what criteria is it ok that 100,000 people are millionaires and 750,000 people live on miserable incomes? Is there not something corrupt about such an arrangement?
Were it the case that huge disparities in incomes did not spill over into other spheres – for instance, health and power – then it might not be so significant. But the evidence is that inequality in wealth and incomes spills over devastatingly into these other spheres.
That now seminal report of the Institute of Public Health revealed that between 1989 and 1998, the death rate for all causes of death was over three times higher in the lower occupational class than in the highest. It found the death rates for all cancers among the lowest occupational class were over twice as high as for the highest class, three times higher for strokes, four times higher for lung cancer and six times higher for accidents.
In another study, the Institute found women in the unemployed socio-economic group are more than twice as likely to give birth to low-birth weight children as women in the higher professional group. A survey in 2003 showed that 39 per cent of people surveyed identified financial constraints as the greatest factor in preventing them from improving their health.
Isn't there something dysfunctional about a society with such huge disparities of health welfare, especially a society that has such wealth?
Similar disparities arise in education and of course in power and influence. The rich own and control the media – aside from RTÉ which largely follows the agenda set by the media owned and controlled by the rich. The rich finance the election campaign of the parties that favour their interests. The rich have prime access and preference. That is the way our world goes around.
And as though in conscious illustration of these realities, this election campaign looks as through it will be dominated by the agenda set by the elite, with concentration again on tax and crime (primarily the crimes perpetrated by the poor).
Maybe some time we might try democracy.