"I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me"
Bertie Ahern, on RTÉ Six One News, 26/9/2006
This says it all. The whole theme of this book is encapsulated in that one unguarded sentence as Bertie admitted to the "lesser" crime as a defence against the "greater" one.
A central theme of this book is the broadening of the definition of "corruption" over the years from one of straightforward bribery (where a favour is given in return for a direct cash payment or return to the individual) to one where the return may not be as simple as a direct payment but rather the maintenance or enhancement of power. This latter can be quite diffuse and benefit the individual or a much wider grouping such as a political party.
Bertie was admitting to rewarding his friends, probably those who supported him or the Fianna Fáil party politically, and is attempting to brush off what is actually corruption as mere cronyism.
As well as tracing the development of forms of corruption (and the public's perception of them and reaction to them), this book revisits, in admirably summary form, many of the scandals which typify the turning points down the years.
I was intrigued to read what the Locke's distillery scandal was all about. I had been familiar with the name as a term of abuse but little else. I was also fascinated to read of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid's insider dealing in Great Southern Railway shares. A case of the divine end justifying the secular means, no doubt.
The book is packed tight with this sort of stuff and it is all used to illustrate the evolution of the public sense of corruption. Ireland's past as a British colony where order was sustained by grace and favour, the differing functions of patronage at national and local level, the strong clientist bias in the post independence electoral system, all these factors go into the mix and help to explain both the degree of corruption and its toleration for the greater part of a century.
The book grew out of a PhD thesis and this is both a good and a bad thing. The good side is the rigour of the analysis and the extent to which it is documented in copious endnotes and a very wideranging bibliography, which even includes the Roman Catholic Catechism. If your curiosity has been particularly aroused by some reference or incident you can go and look up the whole thing in its original setting. The bad side is that the writing can be quite dry and convoluted in places.
I can't not mention the book's cover. It is by far the best cover I have ever seen on a book. Check it out. It is a picture of part of the official Government file on the Locke's distillery scandal, which is housed in the National Archives of Ireland. It shows the strings of the national harp ripped by the Treasury tag which holds the file together. Brilliantly evocative.
The book represents a huge amount of work and reflection and gives rise to a lot of food for thought. You won't come away from it without a better understanding of what has been going on under your nose for years and why it was so. You will probably also come away with a firm resolve to support all efforts to increase transparency in public life, enhance accountability and ditch the pernicious cronyism which has so eroded the fabric of our society.
If so, Elaine Byrne will not only have written and engaging book, but will have made a significant contribution to clearing up the national mess.
On a lesser matter, I was surprised by the extent of the typos and stylistic errors which escaped the proof readers. The book is published by Manchester University Press, after all. Roll on the next edition.
Verdict: an indispensible guide to (i) getting a handle on the nature and development of corruption in Irish public life since independence and (ii) setting it in a "satisfying" intellectual framework.