Legislation needed for protection of whistleblowers

02 Jun 09

OPINION: We have a responsibility as citizens to adopt a mindset which accepts and embraces the exposure of wrongdoing, writes ELAINE BYRNE in The Irish Times, June 2, 2009

 

FRANK DUNLOP is not the first Irish person to be convicted for corruption.

 

In the mid-1940s, a former chair of Dublin County Council and a civil servant from the Department of Education were found guilty of bribing councillors to vote for senators in Seanad elections.

 

An undercover sting operation caught the men red-handed. In the subsequent court cases, it emerged that Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street and the Ormond Hotel on Abbey Street were the bribing meeting points for those travelling from the country looking for money for their votes.

 

Indeed, such was the entrepreneurial spirit of the two men that they were known to sell a first preference vote which they then converted into a 10th preference, thus selling the first preference vote again.

 

The Seanad bribery case and the Dunlop affair are remarkably similar. Both incidents were preceded by years of rumours and allegations and an obvious absence of political will to challenge the corrupt behaviour.

 

To date, in each case, the only conviction secured was that of the middlemen in the corrupt transaction. The councillors who were the alleged recipients of the bribe were named by the defendants but not prosecuted. The alleged benefactor of the bribes was also not pursued.

 

The Dunlop affair may mark a watershed in the State’s attitude to corruption if convictions arise from files sent by the Criminal Assets Bureau to the Director of Public Prosecutions regarding the activities of named councillors.

 

 

High Court proceedings are currently under way by the bureau to seize Carrickmines land owned by Jackson Way, which was part-rezoned through Dunlop’s efforts.

 

Joan Burton’s response to Dunlop’s conviction was categorical. The Labour Party, she asserted, had a “proud record of fighting against the kind of corruption that unfortunately Frank Dunlop, Fianna Fáil and a lot of people who served on the council from Fine Gael came to exemplify during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s”.

 

Not quite true.

 

During the controversial tenure of James Tully, the Labour TD for Meath, as minister for local government in the 1973-1977 coalition government, he was the subject of much media comment regarding planning decisions, particularly his rezoning of land in north Co Dublin.

 

He had the distinction of a tribunal of inquiry established in his honour in 1975 to investigate his business relationship with a building contractor. The Tully tribunal was chaired by the recently deceased Mr Justice Séamus Henchy. It sat for just two hours and was the shortest corruption tribunal in the history of the State. Tully, fondly known as the “little corporal from Laytown”, was cleared of any impropriety.

 

In each of these political incidents, the focus shifted to those who made the allegations and not the allegations themselves. As a consequence, the pattern of incidents repeated themselves in different ways for decades. Complicit in this was a historical reluctance of potential whistleblowers to come forward.

 

This is a recurring theme in Irish life.

 

It is easier to ignore systemic bankruptcy by condemning individual failings. We allow ourselves to become distracted by the personality of those who commit the crime and not the underlying reasons why the crime occurred in the first place. In this way, we became normalised to a distorted way of conducting everyday life where counterfeit principles became entrenched and are assumed to be beyond reproach.

 

Complemented by a traditional fear and deference towards authority, a corrosive culture of secrecy has dominated every aspect of Irish life. The same moral equivocation responsible for political corruption was churned out for child abuse by the religious.

 

We did know, but we choose not to listen.

 

For example, Michael O’Brien’s extraordinary contribution on last week’s Questions and Answers has already recorded some 100,000 hits on YouTube. When pressed by John Bowman as to why he didn’t report the abuse in later life, O’Brien responded: “Because I would have been made an outcast.”

 

In his letter to the extended Irish Times letters section last week, former social worker Frank Crummey wrote of threats of physical violence and the social ostracisation his family endured when he first spoke up about child abuse by the Christian Brothers some 40 years ago.

 

The Ryan report found that the Department of Education’s attitude to the repeated complaints by victim Tim O’Rourke “was not about how to investigate his complaint, but about what to do about a troublemaker who had complained”.

 

As O’Rourke told Prime Time : “I felt I was being totally ignored, that I had no rights whatever, that children who were being sexually abused at the time counted for nothing . . . five years passed, 10 years passed and it’s now 27 years.

 

And what of the Department of Education civil servants complicit in the abuse because of the dereliction of their duty? Are they to hide behind the cloak of anonymity without penalty but rewarded in their retirement with full pension rights?

 

If we are serious about addressing systemic failures, a priority must be the introduction of comprehensive legislative protection for whistleblowers. Then again, such legislation is meaningless unless we adopt a mindset which accepts and embraces the exposure of wrongdoing, within all of our institutions, as a responsibility of citizenship.

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