The only way is ethics

Mick Wallace has insisted that he is fit to be a TD despite making a false Vat declaration and under-declaring his company's tax liability by €1.4m. (€2.1m under the terms of his settlement with Revenue, including interest and penalties.) This tax liability will never be paid given his company is insolvent. However, Mick Wallace himself is tax compliant, hence his insistence on keeping his seat. Most people from Wexford will tell you he's a very nice man, has created employment and has done nothing wrong. Mick Wallace filed the false Vat declaration in 2009. Company accounts show that the previous year the two directors of the company, Mick Wallace and his son, shared directors fees of €290,000 – up from €148,141 the previous year.

We hold those in public life up to a higher standard because we entrust them with our hopes, aspirations and the future of our country. We expect them to have high moral standards, ethics and a sense of public duty. Is this the right thing to do? If yes then Mick Wallace should fall on his sword and go, so that someone with higher integrity may take his place. If no, then there really is no argument here.

So which is it ethical or unethical politics? Should we hold politicians to a higher moral standard? They are, after all, just frail and flawed human beings like the rest of us. Politics has always been viewed as a public-spirited, civic duty. Those who choose public service as a career have traditionally been viewed as having an interest in the community at large and a love of country. So much so that they have set aside their own ambitions to serve a higher calling: service to their country. It is this idea of service to one's country that lends itself to an idea of ethics and a high moral standard.

It used to be quite common that politicians did the decent thing and resigned when wrongdoing was uncovered, except in Ireland. Irish politicians have consistently refused to go even in the face of sometimes astonishing revelations. Pádraig Flynn appeared on The Late Late Show in 1999 and was heard to complain how difficult it was to live on a European Commissioner's salary of approx £100,000 per annum including expenses while keeping three houses. Mr. Flynn continued in office until September 1999 when the whole EU Commission resigned due to allegations of malpractice by the European Parliament. The Mahon Tribunal report of 2012 found him guilty of “wrongly and corruptly” seeking a payment from developer Tom Gilmartin. John O'Donoghue famously brazened it out as the list of his expenses grew larger by the day. When finally forced to resign he declared in his resignation statement that he was a scapegoat for a disreputable expenses regime. He stood for re-election in 2011 and lost. His statement on election night was a master class in hubris: "I hope that the irony will not be lost upon you that I stand here, on my evening of defeat, in a hall – this magnificent sports complex – which I helped to build."

These are just two of the many cases of hubris and the lack of ethics and moral standards in Irish politics. There are, unfortunately, too many more who had to be removed kicking and screaming from the chamber. All, without exception, blamed a flawed system, which allowed them to defraud the taxpayer, and in the case of Fianna Fáil in particular, feed from a trough that was almost bottomless. The cost of Tribunals of Inquiry set up to investigate corruption in Irish politics has run into hundreds of millions with very little information gained that was not already known and no investigation or prosecutions in the offing. I cannot think of one case where a politician fell on his/her sword immediately upon allegations and revelations coming to light.

There is no doubt the system is flawed but there is also a major flaw in those seeking a political career. The trough has now become so entrenched in Irish political life that it has become the goal of a political career instead of the loftier ambition of public service. Politics is broken in this country and we need to have a national conversation as to what we expect of politics and politicians. Unfortunately, due to the current financial and economic crisis, there is seemingly no time for this conversation. Perhaps Billy Connolly best summed it up when he said, “Those showing any interest in a political career should be automatically barred from doing so”!  {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: infomatique.