Corrupting the Argument
What is corruption, anyway?
OK, that’s a pretty broad question, and one which many people would not bother to answer. Corruption is one of those things that you know when you see it, like sarcasm, or bullying, or the constellation of Orion.
Well, maybe. But if that’s the case then there’s been an awful lot of horseshit spoken about corruption in the last few days, most of which has been in connection with Mick Wallace’s underdeclaration of VAT. It’s not been an edifying affair, and those who thought Wallace’s election a good and liberating thing for the Dáil (full disclosure: I was one of them, in spite of his having plenty of shortcomings) would be excused for feeling furious. Wallace should have known that there was an entire culture ready to declare him a chancer. He should have known that there would be a certain glee in tearing down The Guy With The Hair And The Cuclhie Accent and kept his nose so clean it would feature in a Dettol advert. The thought of him justifying himself to the likes of Michael Lowry is beyond ugly, but it’s not like he didn’t ask for it.
Still, the reaction to this has generally been infantile and completely misguided, and for the good of everyone it’s got to stop. We really should be better than this by now.
Much of the discussion I have seen about Wallace has triumphantly recycled his election posters, promising a different kind of politics, as if the view that he is in fact representing More Of The Same – or that he is a “corrupt TD” is a simple truism. Well, it isn’t. This may put me on the side of the apologists, but if that’s so I’m more comfortable here.
What Wallace did was not “corruption.” It was VAT fraud. He did not misuse any of his electoral power. He did not abuse political process for personal gain. What happened was not, in fact, a product of his position at all. Mick Wallace’s business was going down the pan. He falsified a VAT return in order to keep it going. He hasn’t tried to hide from this fact. He hasn’t pretended it was an administrative error or tried to blame an underling. He’s been upfront about the fact that he knowingly did it himself.
This is not to argue that he shouldn’t face the law. If Wallace were to end up in a courtroom over VAT fraud, fine. But this is not corruption, and anyone who says otherwise is frighteningly wrong-headed.
Corruption is about power and privilege. Unless it’s backed by power, it means nothing.
The career of Michael Lowry is a textbook example of corruption. While Communications Minister he abused his position to give Denis O’Brien assistance in getting a mobile phone licence that made O’Brien unimaginably wealthy. He also used his position to achieve rent increases paid by Telecom Eireann to Ben Dunne, and in return Ben Dunne built a nice £400k extension to his house. Breathtaking corruption; Lowry, in a position of power unrivalled by anyone in that country, allowing that power to be abused by others for nothing more than permanent gain.
And Wallace? Where did Wallace’s power lie, exactly? He had a business disintegrating as a property bubble collapsed. It’s certain that Mick Wallace was no angel during the bubble – if he had been, he wouldn’t have been successful – but he did more to help his community than just about any comparable figure. With everything on the slide and the building industry imploding, he underdeclared his VAT by approximately 1.4m. This is not an act of abusing power, it’s an act of desperation; a man trying to keep his business running, and trying to keep his employees in jobs. The €2.1m figure owed to the Revenue includes interest and over €400,000 of penalty charges. His company will not be able to pay the €2.1m, as it is now bankrupt.
This isn’t pretty reading. But the notion that Wallace now belongs in the same league as “the rest of them,” that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Lowry and Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke and Insert Name Here, is simply absurd. And the idea that those who aren’t so concerned by Wallace’s fiddling are, somehow, legitimising Ireland’s long history of parish-pump corruption is similarly deluded. Corruption is about power, and Wallace had none.
Ireland should know what “corruption” looks like better than anyone. The country has, in the last five years, been the victim of entirely legal dealings by the very powerful that are unimaginably corrupt. The last three decades have seen a culture of cronyism so normalised as to be conducted in plain view; a power so entrenched that it need not make any pretence at rectitude.
That disapproval should be heaped on someone with no power, someone clumsily and stupidly trying to keep their business going as their world collapsed, is ridiculous. To call it corruption is moronic and counterproductive and wrong. It ensures that we never bother to understand, really, what power and corruption really mean. Those with power will smile benignly and pronounce on morality, just as Christine Lagarde recently told the Greeks to pay their taxes with such breathtaking moral hypocrisy. As Wallace is held up as a universal symbol of “corruption” you will hear, beneath the fervour, the sound of rotten privilege doing a giddy dance of joy.