18 May 2009

Hold the presses, newspapers not dead yet!

Prompted by a post on Irishelection.com I went out this morning and picked up a copy of the Irish Examiner, for an amazing piece of real journalism by Conor Ryan.

Using the Freedom of Information Act he was able to uncover records of donations made to political parties in the financial statements of companies submitted to the Companies Registration Office. These donations are not recorded in the published accounts of the main political parties nor were some of the donations, grossly in excess of the maximum allowed by law, submitted to the Standards in Public Office Commission by the political parties involved. The majority of donations published in the Examiner were from companies involved in the property and construction industry and, unsurprisingly Fianna Fail was the main beneficiary, both before and after the last election.

While Fianna Fail was the main beneficiary, it wasn't the sole beneficiary, for Fine Gael, the PDs, and even the Labour Party all received and failed to declare such donations. All the major political parties have been caught breaching either the spirit or the letter of the law; all the major parties that is except for the Greens.

The Greens have a very strict policy of accepting no corporate donations whatsoever, it is one of their USPs as a party, and something that John Gormley has been publicly and passionately vocal about. As Minister for the Environment the area of campaign finance reform comes under his brief, and he has promised to publish extensive measures to overhaul a very faulty system, though to date we have only seen the introduction of spending limits on local election campaigns.

The publication of these donations comes at a time when Green Senator Dan Boyle has called for the renegotiation of the Program for Government, the memorandum of understanding between the Greens, PDs and Fianna Fail on the basis of which the Greens entered into government, though John Gormley has been quick to dismiss talk of the Greens pulling out. However difficult it was for the party to remain in office when the revelations about Bertie Ahern's personal finances were coming out, it surely must be even harder to remain tied to Fianna Fail when that party's apparatus itself has now been exposed as corrupt, and on an issue that is a personal hobby horse of Gormley.

Back in 1994 Dick Spring pulled the plug on Labour's coalition with Fianna Fail over Albert Reynolds' appointment of Harry Whelan as Attorney General. Reports emerged of Whelan's mishandling of the extradition of the Catholic priest Brendan Smith to Norther Ireland to face charges of sexual abuse, and when Reynolds still supported Whelan's appointment as AG, Spring pulled out of government. Reynolds was forced to resign, the government fell and Spring formed a new government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

Think about that, the government fell because one party felt the other had committed an error of judgment.

The more cynical amongst you could argue that Spring saw the writing on the wall. Fianna Fail were unpopular with the voters due to a series of financial scandals that had emerged; the electorate had voted for change in the previous election and yet Labour, holding the balance of power, decided to go in with the outgoing government against the wishes of the majority of the electorate and now faced extermination in the next election. Spring's move could be seen as a way of attempting to distance his party from Fianna Fail in the minds of the electorate, take the high moral ground, and give themselves a bit of breathing room to try and win back some of the popular support they had squandered since the 1992 election.

Sound familiar?

The Examiner revelations could prove to be Gormley's 'Harry Whelan moment'. Faced with yet more scandal from his government partners, he could use this as the out that many within the party and beyond have been looking for. It would be a chance to take the high moral ground on an issue that the Greens should emerge spotless from themselves, alone of all the parties. Indeed it is difficult to see how Gormley, who has been unwavering in his condemnation of corporate graft and political greed, could sit back and let these revelations go by, so large and widespread is the corruption.

The counter argument is that with Fianna Fail under so much pressure, there has never been a better time for the Greens to get everything they want. If Fianna Fail were forced to the polls in a national election, they would suffer a defeat the like of which has never been seen in this country, and could take decades to recover from. The Greens should be able to wrangle a long list of concessions from Biffo in return for their continued support. The question is will Gormley be brave enough to press home this advantage and go for real concessions, like the reversal of Education cuts, the Corrib Pipeline, the Ringsend incinerator, what's left of the Tara bypass and the continued use of Shannon by the US military and CIA, or will he waste it on more fluff like CFL Lightbulbs and electric car charging stations, items that are important but that no-one is really opposing.

Only time will tell.

Full marks to Conor Ryan on this one, an outstanding piece of investigative journalism. Who said newspapers were obsolete?

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