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.


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.