She was a battered wife in poor health. When she finally fled her home, she found refuge in a room at the top of a rickety stairs in a three-storey house. It was dark, cold and cluttered but it was a safe place. With the help of friends, and when she gradually recovered the fragments of her confidence, she decided to seek better accommodation.
She went to an elected representative and asked him to ‘get her’ a local authority house. That was how she thought about an entitlement to which, in her circumstances, she had an absolute right. In one of his many excellent columns on the Mahon Tribunal Report, Fintan O’Toole has written about the power of the powerful, the corollary of which is the powerlessness of the powerless. The woman identified herself as powerless and sought the help of someone she perceived as having power and influence.
The representative correctly told her she should complete an application form and that he would ‘follow it up’. This she did, and in due course she was assessed, her accommodation inspected, her medical condition verified, her needs authenticated and she was allocated a place on a specific housing list, albeit at the bottom of the list of applicants who had fulfilled the same criteria.
Gradually her name moved upwards on the list, and then she headed the list and finally she was allocated a house. The process was fair and just. There had not been any favouritism. No special pleading. The woman was given accommodation, when it became available, in proper sequence, and on the merits of her needs and circumstances.
During the entire process, she received two letters from the elected representative: one saying that her application had been received and the other telling her that a house had been allocated to her, though this, the woman already knew, having been officially informed of the fact.
She had been given that to which she was entitled, but she believed this was only achieved through the power and influence of the elected representative. And she vowed to reward him “to my dying day” with her vote. He did nothing to disabuse her of the false belief that he had been responsible for getting the house for her, and so had ensured her loyalty and, more importantly, her vote.
This is a very low-level example of the sort of sleazy opportunism for which we Irish have invented our own special word: cute hoorism. It is a word which has not, as yet, found its way into any dictionary or thesaurus in the English language, but we all know the cute hoor when we meet him or her, though it is usually a him. He, or she, defies description. There is a certain roguish charm, a talk-out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth, an aberration of truth and honesty, a persona of a know-all fixer. He/she thrives on the powerless, and is rewarded by the brown envelope, though in the case of the woman and the house, money had not been exchanged, but a vote in perpetuity was promised.
The run-of-the-mill cute hoor is at the bottom of a spiral which has escalated into the perfection of the genre revealed in the Mahon report, in which corruption, untruthfulness and the abuse of power, by significant elements of our Irish political hierarchy, were all revealed. And while, as citizens, we were shocked, we were not unusually surprised.
There had been suspicion but despite glaring daily evidence from the Tribunal that many of the powerful were ‘at it’, we elected them again and again, notably in the 2007 election. We had been willing to accept a level of chicanery until the scale of it, and its retrospective influence on the economic mess in which we now find ourselves, had been revealed in 8,000 pages of a report, paraphrased for us in the media.
Why have we been unwilling to accept corrupt standards in high places? We didn’t know about them? Yes, we did! Before the 2007 election we knew about the infamous ‘Thanks big fella’ from Haughey. We saw Lawlor and Burke imprisoned. We were revolted by the unctuous Pee Flynn. And in a country plagued by the tragedy of young people killing themselves, we didn’t bat an eye-lid when our thrice-elected prime minister – Bertie Ahern – advised people concerned about the relationship between developers, government and the economy that they should ‘go and commit suicide’.
All of which has now prompted the question which many people are asking|: have we, ordinary Irish people, citizens of this beautiful country, yet evolved a civi moral ethic; a sense of ethical moral probity; a practical patriotism incorporating a sense of duty?
It is a question which the late Garrett Fitzgerald raised in some of his ‘Irish Times’ Saturday columns in the year before his death. And the conclusion has been that we had not.
In a new and very conservative state, our moral compass has been set on an obsession with sex. Any perceived transgressions, especially those involving women were punished. Unmarried mothers were tarnished and many gave their babies away. Dark and lonely roads were perilous occasions of sin. Truth, justice, honesty barely registered on the ethical code. Even murder, if it was for ‘the cause’, could evoke an excusing nod and a wink.
Of course we could explain our low expectations on the old enemy – the Brits. After all, we could tell ourselves we had to lie and cheat and doff the hat to survive the 800 years. But the argument is no longer valid. We are now big boys and girls, and will celebrate the centenary of our revolution in a few years.
We cannot blame somebody else for the uncritical and unquestioning political loyalty which encourage a public powerlessness by those who betrayed us. We facilitated, maybe connived a bit, and had a good old laugh at and with the cute hoors.
The Mahon Tribunal Report tells us much about the betrayers, but it tells us something more about ourselves.