Having been found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates awaited execution with blissful disregard, declaring: ‘You are sadly mistaken, fellow, if you suppose that a man with even a grain of self-respect should reckon up the risks of living or dying, rather than simply consider, whenever he does something, whether his actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad one.’
Likewise, those of the Fine Gael tradition – or tribe – see defence of the rule of law as a sacred duty. This self-anointed role found its purest expression in the 1932 democratic handover of power to the ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail party. Like Socrates, Cumann na nGaedheal – the precursor to Fine Gael – chose political hemlock over abandonment of principle, and spent sixteen years in the political wilderness.
In the ideological stew that is Irish politics, and in an era in many respects post-historical and distractedly global, a commitment to the institutions of the state – emphasised by the late Liam Cosgrave – flickers in Fine Gael.
As a Minister for Transport Taoiseach Leo Varadkar displayed those instincts – with guts – in his public support for the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, against then Commissioner Martin Callinan in 2014. His intervention came at a crucial point in that sordid affair that has prised open the security forces of the state to highly unedifying scrutiny, leading to the resignation of two Commissioners.
But in becoming the natural party of government after the bail-out – for the first time since 1932 – Fine Gael also decisively shifted its appeal to the commercial classes, and departed from the 1960s generations’ social democratic leanings.
This re-alignment poses an existential threat to a party that has been a bastion of constitutionalism. In particular, questions remain over its relationship to billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose media interests extend to the newspaper with the widest circulation in the state, a host of local publications and two national radio stations.
We cannot be allowed to forget the corruption revealed by the Moriarty Tribunal in 2011, and that no criminal prosecution was brought in response.
O’Brien now dispenses writs of defamation against journalists with the abandon of a card dealer whose fortune is so great he has nothing to lose. The joke is that no Irish journalist worth his salt has not received such a threatening letter.
Press freedom is a crucial measure of democratisation and the rule of law. This is maintained, especially, by guarding against monopolistic practices. Arguably, it also requires state investment – via a licence fee or out of taxation revenue – and oversight of offensive content, such as hate speech.
All media is, to some extent, compromised by the demands of the market, with survival made more challenging with the arrival of the Internet. As George Orwell wrote: ‘The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.’ Maintaining an adequate forum for the ventilation of ideas in that commercial space is crucial.
As much as we may bemoan the Irish Time’s coverage of various issues – and freelancers gnash their teeth at a perceived journalistic establishment – as the main outlet for the Irish intelligentsia the paper is an important democratic pillar. Thus, for Communicorp, the parent company of Newstalk and Today FM, to prohibit radio stations from interviewing Irish Times journalists is a challenge to the integrity of the state itself. For O’Brien to wash his hands of responsibility for that black-listing lacks credibility.
O’Brien’s media outlets coarsen debate, feed a culture of celebrity, and like Rupert Murdoch’s, use extensive sports coverage as a ‘battering ram’, drawing attention away from more important issues. The media space available to the intelligentsia declines with each glossy picture of a scantily clad model.
The question is whether during the Kenny years of drift and incoherence the Fine Gael party has been compromised by its relationships with O’Brien. Kenny even shared a podium with O’Brien at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.
If Fine Gael remain a guardian of the rule of law it must confront O’Brien. The Criminal Assets Bureau seems the appropriate means of moving in on his extensive assets, starting with media holdings that insulate him from public censor. White collar crime is another form of gangsterism. In how he deals with O’Brien we will see if Leo Varadkar really is a good and just man.
An increasingly number of countries, both rich and poor, are beset by oligarchs who exercise undue influence, and restrain the capacity of the intelligentsia to contribute to debates. The rule of law and democracy in Ireland faces a similar challenge in the shape of Denis O’Brien