Toblerones and cojones

Danger: May ruin your political career.

As a new year of political guff and spoofery dawns, we should forget Swedish-style taxes or childcare – what Ireland really needs is Swedish-style politicians.

2012 in Irish politics began as Ivor Callelly was arrested over false mobile phone receipts. As it went on Mick Wallace was found to have welched on VAT payments, and the name of Michael Lowry was never too far from the headlines.

All of these incidents were just the cherries on the usual rancid pile of lies offered up by Irish politicians throughout the year, with the avid kite-flyers of the government almost better by the opposition spivs that bankrupted the country and now crow about it.

Every time some sharp-suited spiv is spotted with his hand in the government expenses cookie jar, I’m reminded of what is quaintly known as “the Toblerone Affair” here in Sweden.

Mona Sahlin – the prime minister that never was.

Back in 1995 Mona Sahlin was the star of Sweden’s Social Democrats – vice prime minister at the time, she was widely tipped to replace Ingvar Carlsson as party leader and become the first female leader of the Scandinavian nation.

But then newspaper Expressen reported that she had used a government-issued bank card to pay around €6000 worth of private expenses – among them two Toblerones, which gave the scandal its name.

Many expenses, such as restaurant visits, had to be paid for in cash at that time, and money to cover them was taken out at an ATM.

In practice, whatever was left over was essentially an advance on the next salary payment.

Sahlin’s problem was twofold; firstly, use of the card for private expenses was strictly prohibited.

Secondly, a bit of journalistic digging showed that she was generally careless with her personal finances, with a slew of unpaid parking fines and under-the-table payments to childcare workers being two incidents that stuck out.

The judgement of the court of public opinion was as swift as it was merciless. On October 14 1995 newspaper Göteborgsposten published an opinion poll in which 66% of the respondents said that Sahlin was unfit to lead the country.

Two days later Sahlin took a “time-out”, removing herself from the race to succeed Carlsson and thus become prime minister.

On October 16 a criminal investigation began. Sahlin dind’t wait around for the outcome – on November 10 she resigned, her career in ruins.

In January 1996 the investigation was closed as no crime could be detected, and Sahlin eventually paid back all monies owed, plus around €1800 extra, but by then it didn’t matter.

The Swedish people demand standards in public office, and Mona Sahlin had not met those standards.

The story doesn’t end there; for the next ten years, Sahlin wandered the political wilderness before finally getting her chance to lead the party following the loss of the 2006 general election and Göran Persson’s subsequent resignation as party leader.

But her dream of being Sweden’s first female prime minister was to remain unrealised.

The electorate in Sweden neither forgives nor forgets in a hurry, and Sahlin and the Social Democrats were narrowly defeated in the 2010.

I covered the election night for a major news agency, and many in her party suggested that, with a different leader, the centre-left coalition would have won the election – but many swing voters felt they couldn’t get behind Sahlin because of her Toblerones.

To Sweden’s credit, from the moment Sahlin’s creative cashflow solution was unveiled, her fate was sealed. This is less certain in Ireland, where the likes of Seán Quinn and Michael Lowry are often regarded as local heroes, rather than greedy spivs.

Fianna Fáil showed signs of learning the lessons of the likes of Sahlin at the last election – faced with a country full of voters that would never elect many of them again, most chickened out and didn’t contest the election.

The chickening-out of Fianna Fáil represents the green shoots of Irish democracy. It shows that we can and will tell politicians when they have done wrong, and that we will not elect them again if they do so.

It’s time to show some cojones raise the bar in public life considerably – no more fraud, no more lies, no more deliberately misleading the public.

Having been put into €78 billion of debt without our say-so, the least the people that put us there can do is be straight with us – and not steal any more from us.

It may take time, but less Toblerones and higher standards shouldn’t unduly hurt our elected representatives.


100 days, or more of the same?

Bang bang, we're all dead.

Usually, I wouldn’t get involved, and the reason is simple.

The hundreth day of this administration is no more interesting than the 101st, or the 79th, especially given the fact that the current government took the baton from the last government and just kept running the same race.

But here goes.

There have been no surprises. As expected, all that has happened is that this government has continued on where the previous one left off, generally giving the weakest in society a good kicking whilst not holding anyone to account through either incompetence or indifference.

Either way, it’s not positive, and it won’t bring this horrible situation to an end any time soon.

More cannot be expected of Enda Kenny; he is after all a career politician who continues to live by the maxim that you’re never as good as they say you are, but you’re never as bad either. No boats will be rocked with Enda at the helm.

Nor can more be expected of Labour, who as usual have parked their principles at the door in return for a taste of power.

The Micháel Martin charm(less) offensive hasn’t disappointed either; it would be interesting to see how he would rate his own record in office, given that he gives the current regime “three out of ten”. If he is honest, he and the rest of the party should call up Vincent Browne and ask for a loan of the shotgun and whiskey that Enda so churlishly declined.

Of course, the promises made by Kenny and the rest haven’t been fulfilled, nor had they ever any chance of coming to fruition. And the bailout renegotiations were the shortest in history.

Ireland: “Can we renegotiate the bailout?”

Europe: “No.”

Ireland: “Grand.”

All this was simply a continuation of the former government’s tried, tested and failed tactic of trying to hoodwink the markets. And it failed again.

If there was another election after 100 days, I reckon the turnout would be close to zero because Irish politics has finally reached its nadir. There is no difference between any of them any more.

But then again, maybe expectations are so low that people wouldn’t even bother punishing them anymore. And Michael Lowry would still get elected.

After all, this is Ireland, where the facts count for nothing. This is Ireland, where there is as much accountability after 100 days as there is after four years- none.

This is Ireland, where upon your death you can be declared the greatest patriot who ever lived, despite handing the keys of the country over to the IMF and the ECB.

Enda tells us that we have to do more with less, and he would do well to heed his own advice. There are entrepreneurs and ideas and schemes out there that are being stillborn, either because they can’t get credit or because the instigators don’t know which agencies can help them.

These are people who, having been robbed of their jobs, their equity and their pensions, are happy to take the risk and try to get themselves back in employment, but instead they get more of the same.

“We can’t lend to you”.

“That’s not our remit, it’s more for *insert state agency here*.”

“That’s great but we have no resources”.

I wrote to Enda recently with a few ideas, suggesting that he and his government focus a little more on engaging the diaspora – and not just in the US, the UK and Australia – in helping our country in her time of need. If I recall correctly, the last line I wrote was along the lines of “there are thousands of us overseas ready, willing and able to help. Put us to work for Ireland”.

Needless to say, I didn’t receive a reply. But let’s do it anyway.

Let’s take 100 days to do what this government could not or would not do.

Let’s take 100 days to preach the good word about our country, and tell the world that despite the preponderance of greedy sycophants at the top of the tree, there are still hard-working, smart people available.

Let’s tell them how beautiful our country is, and how much craic it is, and how great the food tastes. Tell them about Jedward and Dave Browne playing the guitar for 100 hours in Temple Bar, and how Dunphy and Giles are better than anything else in the world when it comes to football punditry.

Because after 100 days of more of the same, if we don’t do it, no-one else will.

Ireland’s image is damaged abroad, and we need to fix it before we can start doing business again. Our bond yields are evidence of that.

But if we do what we always did, we’ll continue to get what we always got.

And we deserve better than that.

What is says in the papers

God, I’m dreading tomorrow’s papers.

Usually at this time on a Saturday night I’ll be watching the Twitter feed of Frank Fitzgibbon, editor of the Sunday Times in Ireland, who performs the invaluable social service of tweeting the main stories from all of tomorrow’s papers as soon as they hit the newsstands.

I reckon he can probably take the night off tonight.

Tomorrow’s papers will, unless the Rapture arrives in the next few minutes, be about Garret, Leinster and the Queen.

Whereas I’m looking forward to reading about the first two, I’m not sure I can stomach another millisecond of the gormless cheerleading about herself across the water that has dominated the media in Ireland this week.

This was the week when Newstalk’s “news without the state-run spin” tagline became laughably redundant, as commentator after commentator read long and loud from the government script.

RTE broadcast hour after hour of uncritical commentary of her visit, beating us soundly over the head with about how “unprecedented” it was, and how “successful” it all was.

Our new government also took the opportunity to declare how the visit had drastically improved Ireland’s image abroad, despite the fact that it was roundly ignored outside of the British Isles; indeed, here in Sweden any mention of it also included the “viable explosive devices” found on the day of her arrival. Great for the image, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But rather than heralding a new era in Anglo-Irish relations (we’ve had good relations for twenty years or more now), the only thing that has really changed is the attitude of many people towards the Queen herself.

Skips quickly filled with Wolfe Tones tapes and Proclamation posters as the Irish people discovered they really liked her after all.

A lot of people were genuinely astounded at her warmth, her ability to deliver a speech (including a few words in the local language) and the fact that she was generally reasonably amiable.

Why people would be surprised that a woman who has been doing the job – and it is a job – for nearly sixty years might actually turn out to be good at it is beyond me.

But beyond the platitudes and the thundering media back-slapping, nothing has changed; all the visit of the Queen has done is cement the fact that Ireland and the Irish people don’t do accountability.

Because rather than apologise for the actions of her country in ours (which she was never going to do, and is probably why they sent her), this unelected head of state spoke of her “sympathy” for those affected.

It was as if one eight-minute speech was enough to close the book on the North and move on. Those interned without trial, or the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, might respectfully disagree.

Anyone not prepared to forgive and forget this week is labelled backward, a bigot or a crank, lumped in with the morons in Manchester United shirts throwing rocks at the police and failing to burn the Union Jack.

In short, a person accountable to no-one has essentially told us that no-one will be held accountable for anything, but it’s all alright because we are friends now. And we applauded her loudly for it, because that is what we do.

That is why Charles Haughey died a free man, never called to account for his actions – or his accounts – before a court. That is why Mountjoy is filled with the working-class poor while no banker nor politician has been charged with bankrupting our country.

That is why Michael Lowry still gets votes, and why Bertie Ahern gets away with telling us that his income comes from the gee-gees. That is why we remain a laughing stock, not least to ourselves.

As he is laid to rest, it is worth remembering that Garret Fitzgerald was one of the few politicians – some would say the only – who was held to account for his time in office; not only that, he also held himself to account.

His government had to administer some deeply unpopular economic medicine, and the voters extracted their revenge at the ballot box. His party was hammered at the polls, and he resigned as party leader.

It’s worth keeping that in mind this Sunday morning as the hacks have one last outpouring of superlatives over an old woman who cannot be touched and who can only be spoken to if she speaks first.

And as you read their gushing, unblinking praise and listen to the back-slapping on the morning radio shows, ask yourself why they are not doing what it is we expect them to do – why are they not asking critical questions of people in power? Why do they never manage to hold anyone to account?

It could never happen here

It all seems so quaint.

Caught short of cash, the minister used her government-issue bank card to buy a few things- mostly benign items like chocolate bars. As she looked a shoo-in to take over as party leader and the next prime minister of her country, the press got hold of the story. She resigned, and despite having paid back every cent, plus interest, was forced to wander the political wilderness for years- though she did go on to lead her party (if not her country), most would agree that “the Toblerone Affair” destroyed Mona Sahlin’s political career in Sweden.

As the runners and riders for the Irish general election line up at the post, I notice the miracle of political science that is Michael Lowry is once more limbering up to give Irish democracy another undeserved puck in the eye. Lowry, described in print by Fintan O’Toole as “a cheat and a liar”, is no stranger to a tribunal or a spot of tax avoidance- having allowed Ben Dunne do up his home to the tune of several hundred thousand euro, Lowry spent years trying to avoid the taxman, all the while legislating that others should do the opposite.

And his reward for his lying and cheating? A well-deserved prison sentence and a banishment from politics? A date with the Criminal Assets Bureau? Far from it. This is Ireland, and that is not the way we do things here.

Rather than banishing Lowry to the ‘Joy, the good people of Tipperary North instead gave him so many votes that he has since topped the poll in every election- a resounding endorsement of a crook if ever there was one. Instead of being behind bars for his lax attitude to tax, Lowry finds himself in the Dáil, making the very laws he seems so fond of flouting. If we want to know why the banks were allowed to get away with their actions, we’d do well to look at what our politicians have been allowed to get away with first.

Of course, there is the “good on ya, Michael!” crowd, who say they would have done the same themselves. WIth their help, Michael sees no shame in the fact that he allowed a businessman to build a west wing on his mansion- why should he, when neither the authorities or the electorate have forced him to see the error of his ways? In the meantime, Mona Sahlin reflects on the space left in the Swedish history books for the first female prime minister and silently curses her penchant for Toblerones.

Though their haste towards the exit has been unseemly, it’s actually a good thing that many in Fianna Fáil recognise that it’s the end of the road and are not standing for re-election. It means that, even in the cradle of crony capitalism, their behaviour over the last few years is neither justified nor condoned, least of all by themselves.

But as the campaign gathers pace, there are some who still believe that they had no part in our downfall, even though they served in government or cabinet. Let’s call them the “We All Partied” Party. There are some who actually believe that they acted honorably in selling out their country and their voters (if in doubt, check out the tweets of a particular loudmouth Green TD from Dublin)- first to the developers, then to the bondholders and finally to the IMF and the ECB. There are some who still operate from the standpoint that “sure everyone was doing it, so why not me?”.

In short, there are still a lot of Lowrys out there, and it’s time to show them the door if we are serious about building not just a new Ireland, but a better Ireland. Just ask Mona.