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.


“Jailing former prime ministers is our national sport”

A poster in downtown Kiev in support of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Pascha has dodged the question twice.

It’s lunchtime, and there isn’t enough soup and fish and rice in the world to give him time to explain the minutiae of Ukrainian politics to me.

Or why Yulia Tymoshenko is still behind bars.

But I’m not giving up. If I’m going to write about it, I have to know.

We’re in an oasis of calm in what is eerily like Celtic Tiger Ireland. On the way to the cheapest and best restaurant I’ve been in since I landed on Monday, we passed an Aston Martin store.

Ukraine has come a long way in a short time.

I’m here to cover Euro 2012 for the world’s biggest news agency, and in the dead days of profiles and previews and pen pics, I took a walk down to the UEFA Fan Zone in the centre of the city.

In the midst of it all is a row of white tents, where activists protest against the jailing of ex-prime minister Tymoshenko on what they – and she – say are trumped-up politically-motivated charges.

Pascha looks exasperated.

“The best way to explain it is this- it’s our national sport. Others have hockey or football or table tennis, but here, we jail ex-prime ministers. It’s our national sport.”

From what I have seen, Kiev is a remarkable place in a remarkable country.

Fiercely nationalistic, they yearn to be part of Europe, but fear abandoning their culture.

They yearn to be independent, but fear cutting the ties with the old mother country, Russia.

It is not unlike Ireland of a hundred years ago. It is not unlike the Ireland of today.

But one thing is different. Here, the national sport seems to be jailing the opposition, whereas in Ireland, the people are the opposition.

Pascha’s explanation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I’m willing to buy it for now.

The activists protesting in the fan zone don’t make much sense either, but then English is very much a foreign tongue here.

What makes even less sense? We finish our lunch and return to the building where we have been spending the morning reporting on sport.

As we approach, the penny drops- this modern building of glass and steel is the Leonardo building. I recognise it, because I have written about it and its owner for an Irish Sunday newspaper.

It is not owned by some fat Russian oligarch, empowered and emboldened by the fall of communism.

It is owned by Seán Quinn, an Irish oligarch of an altogether different hue.

In a strange twist on Ukrainian reality, he is seemingly empowered and emboldened by the fall of capitalism in Ireland – much of its downfall due to him and his friends at Anglo Irish Bank, who are now trying to take this building off him.

Will they succeed? If they do, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for Irish taxpayers.

Because not only do we not jail former prime ministers in Ireland – we don’t jail anyone who isn’t poor.