With all this talk of snouts in the trough and the ongoing exposure of excessive political expenses and government agency spending at the cost to the taxpayer, a strange and curious pattern of human behaviour has emerged. While I have little sympathy for some of the bunnies that have been caught in the media headlamps and held up as examples of all that is rotten in Irish politics and state agencies, I can almost see how it happened.

While each individual should be held responsible for their behaviour, it would appear that going into Irish politics is like entering some sort of seedy, smoky opium den. You enter with the sound intentions of just seeing what goes on, finding out all you can quietly and then cleaning the place up and leaving your indelible mark of decency on the establishment. These are noble thoughts and no doubt fill the heads of many young aspiring politicians. In our opium den analogy the young politician enters piously, despising all forms of mind altering drugs while preaching about the virtues of sobriety. They are going in to make a difference!

Sadly before they get the chance to shine like a beacon of good and be that champion of the people, they find themselves sitting on a cushion with their name on it, stoned out of their brains, smoking through their very own personal pipe with all their good intentions floating into the air with the smoke. Without consciously consenting they have been indoctrinated into the way of the club and realise that they might as well join in as most everyone else is doing it. Indeed after a while it doesn’t even feel wrong. With enough time immersed in such a world, a sense of entitlement creeps in married to the ‘sure someone else makes the arrangements, I wouldn’t know the price of a pint of milk, let alone a 5 star hotel room where they turn down the bed and leave you a little night time chocolate. Sure for all I know they do that in every hotel!’

Inflated sense of entitlement

It’s an ugly arrogance and an inflated sense of entitlement and pride. It’s seems to be common in political life and I don’t know too many who have managed to successfully negotiate such a landscape and avoid these traps. It was quite amusing listening to John Gormley during a radio interview on Sunday last. He relayed the almost comical story about how he had gone to great lengths to be environmentally friendly and cost conscious on one particular trip to the UK. He had taken a train and then a ferry with the great unwashed as a foot passenger! He had shunned the government jet or taking his state car in an attempt to drive down costs and the size of his carbon footprint. It was all working out well until some hotshot at the embassy sent a car from London to Wales to ferry him about at the exorbitant cost of over two thousand euro which was billed to the Irish taxpayer! Of course this is his version of events, but it’s a good example of a civil servant spending other people’s money. They just don’t seem to care or equate the money spent with the people who are working to give it to them; namely you and me, John and Mary Taxpayer.

I tend to believe that Rody Molloy of FAS or John O’Donoghue and his wife were not sitting at home every evening conjuring up ways of milking the taxpayer. I don’t think for a second it entered Mrs O’Donoghue’s head as she threw a few things into case for a Paris trip that she was upsetting anyone. She probably saw it as an entitlement; a small perk seen as her husband gave such long hours to the country. Indeed, she has had her own share of suffering with constituents calling to the house and him being away in Dublin all the time.

Misguided thoughts

While this doesn’t make it right, I can see how such misguided thoughts can become dominant and then create a reality that you live in from day to day. Live there long enough and you lose touch with the rest of the world and this, I dare say, is the deeper and more difficult problem to eradicate; Ivory Tower syndrome. This is why there wasn’t an instant outcry from all sectors of the House when John O’Donoghue’s expenses came to light. Some politicians even tried to defend it. One particular TD suggested it was an outrage that the man should be put through such humiliation and made out it was just, ‘journalists with nothing better to do’. Obviously your thinking will be equally fuzzy when you are benefiting from the same system. The looks of hurt and bewilderment that have been evident in press photos just prove that they believe they didn’t do anything wrong.

The other issue that makes the system a very bitter pill to swallow is the very tough mechanism employed to collect the funds that these guys treat with such little respect. In order to get the money that funded the O’Donoghues’ day out at the races in Paris, someone somewhere had to put in real work. Equally if you are in debt to Revenue they take it very seriously and collect the monies without mercy; bailiffs are at the ready should you default. Spending it, however, seems to be a lot less serious a business. There are golden handshakes, phoney companies that siphon off money, dinners, trips abroad, luxury accommodation and, in the past, even fancy shirts!

The real shame in all of this is not necessarily the money that has been spent, but the lack of humility and the contempt for the general public that this has displayed. The other tragedy is the message it sends out and the resulting attitude it fosters. In the very real world where people actually work for a living, drive their own cars and pay for their own clothes and holidays there is the temptation to meet such arrogant deceit with equal duplicity. You really can’t blame people thinking that enough is enough. If their taxes are going to be squandered and frittered away then why should they pay them at all?

Such obvious disregard for the public purse and the ordinary person will just drive and grow an underground cash market as well as driving the young and talented to other countries. It is a cancerous attitude whereby many people will actually make money (even in a recession) and those left in the tax net will pay even more as the pool of taxpayers dwindles. It’s a vicious cycle. While I offer the opium analogy as a reason, it certainly isn’t an excuse. While the O’Donoghue and Fás debacle represent one corner of the opium den, let’s hope that by shining a light there it might just reflect enough to make some changes.