IN THE WEEKS of “the tapes,” I saw a letter, which purported to be a random survey, sent by the HSE to a woman, an octogenarian with a fading memory, who holds a medical card. Under an implied threat of the withdrawal of the card, she was asked to give details, on an attached form, of her income, her bank account, and any investments which she might hold.
Her income was very modest, but she did have some investments, a few Post Office Bonds which she described as her “savings.” “You know how it was,” she said, “our mothers always told us there would be a rainy day!” And the rainy day she foresaw, and made provision for, was her funeral expenses, and maybe a few weeks in a nursing home preceding that inevitability.
The fact that the State has now assumed the status of Big Brother, demanding to know everything about us, was not something that engaged her. But what did concern her were the warnings printed in big letters on the form, which said that any misinformation given by her would result in serious punishments, “up to and including imprisonment.”
I repeat - this was the week of “the tapes.” The coincidence did not escape both of us. In the current gallow’s humour, the woman said that she was sure that if she were sent to prison, it was most unlikely that she would have as neighbours, in the adjoining men’s prison, the unholy trinity of politicians, bankers and developers which has brought Ireland to the place in which it now finds itself. The missed opportunity for the over-the-prison-wall conversations, had both of us, herself and myself, convulsed in sardonic laughter.
It is, of course, no laughing matter for ordinary Irish people, but the fact seems to be that it is easier to send an 80-year-old, slightly dotty woman, to jail than it is to bring to justice those who are responsible for the loss of a generation of our young people to emigration; or because despairing business people kill themselves; or decent families are beggared and made homeless by obscene mortgages.
processes and behaviours IMpossible to identify
The processes and behaviours which have brought Irish society to such a crisis are, it appears, impossible to identify or to punish or to seek redress, or even extract explanations, for. Have they just been stupid, foolish, adventurous, brazen and shameless? Has irresponsible entrepreneurialism been brought to the edge of the cliff? Or have they just been unethical?
It has been interesting to listen to the language in which the commentators on our national radio described their reaction to the tapes. (The usual suspects were brought in!) There was a re-discovery of The Seven Deadly Sins - long consigned to the rubbish bin during the Tiger years. Arrogance - Pride - was at the top of the list, followed by sheer avarice - Greed. If you wanted to wordplay, the rest could follow. But, for Irish people who still hold on to some sense of what is right and what is moral - do any of these, in our lexicon of laws, constitute a crime? Are they indictable offences?
So, while the laws are there to facilitare the state in sending old women, and rowdy young fellows, to jail, the perpetuators of the sorry state of Ireland today live in palatial houses in other countries and have adopted careers as “financial advisers.”
The status of the intent, a glimpse of which we heard in the tapes, has yet to be assessed. Was this unethical or criminal? The only place in which it can be ultimately tested in in our courts. Yet, five years on, no case has yet reached a full hearing. This does nothing to reinforce our confidence in our system of laws. The old truism that “justice delayed is justice denied” still holds true, and the popular belief is that “nothing will ever come of it” and “nobody will be made to answer for it.” Those perceptions can be seriously damaging of the public good.
And if and when, if ever, a case does come to court, are our current laws sufficiently comprehensive to deal with the challenges of the dichotomy between individual guilt and the consequences of that individual’s actions in society. While the deliberate cooking of the books, with the objective of deceiving, may well be deemed to be a crime, is the resultant effect on a country’s economy merely a by-product: or, to use the now fashionable language, an unintended consequence?
We have yet to find out. While our legal system is making its ponderously slow journey to the courts, or so we are informed, our legislators are conducting boring debates on possible tribunals, (Oh! God - not again!) or some form of parliamentary inquiry, or another referendum on the Constitution.
definition of treason
A recent letter-writer to the “Irish Times” suggested a solution. Bring back our Special Courts, he said. Apply the same criteria as was done for subversives. Desperate measures, but is there something to be said for them? After all, in the definition of treason, the bankers, with their posh suits, and gutter-language, have done far more harm to the Irish people in recent times than the balaclaved para-militarists.
And yet, the energies of our State are wasted in pursuing doddery 80-year-old Medical Card holders.