By Jim O'Sullivan
“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
I suppose at this stage no one would be surprised if we woke up some day to the news that the Dalai Lama himself was dabbling in a little property speculation during Bertie’s “bubble” boom. James Reilly it seems, the very essence of compassion and understanding, was up to his elbows in it, when he wasn’t breaking down giving interviews attacking Mary Harney’s heartless treatment of the women of the country ---while at the same time exploiting her health “privatisation” inspired tax relief policies.
And bold, daring, upright, “we have to pay our way” Basher Hogan, was also on board the fast track conveyer to wealth and riches---and there you were thinking, having surveyed the wreckage of the first 18 months in office, that we had elected an honest government who just didn’t know what it was doing.
It was inevitable that the outrageous abuse of taxpayers’ money that tax reliefs represent would be eagerly exploited by money-grubbers. It was the artful dodger himself Charlie McCreevy after all who brought these reliefs to a fine art. Originally such tax reliefs were designed to attract already “earned” money, hard money, out of stagnant savings funds to go to work on development projects. The tax relief, it was argued, would be well returned by increased employment and improving infrastructure. In short time however, these extended from “urban renewal schemes” to encompass a gaggle of headings that should have alerted us that these schemes had morphed into another purpose entirely----enriching the already enriched.
While Section 23 expanded its horizons to include such things as, “town renewal schemes”, “rural renewal schemes”, and even “seaside resort schemes”,(was there a McEniff in the air?), capital gains tax was halved, mortgage interest relief was increased and all residential property taxes were abandoned just to sweeten the pot. This “bubble” creation mix was almost complete----all that was missing was access to handy money and an obstinate urge to get rich.
Money arrived by way of the European banks that flushed it through the Irish system with the same efficiency that a two week old kebab from “arse-scratcher” Mahdi’s food stand---located down by the sewage works---passes though a human gut. This also provided the opening for the greed merchants to really and truly put the foot to the floor and cream it. What happened next was astonishing and it beggars belief that it went on for so long and it is profoundly depressing when it is realised that the present government incumbents held the watching brief in opposition at the time and not only knew full well what was happening, but they actively partook in the greedfest as evidenced by the doings of our two Ministers mentioned heretofore.
The icing on the cake for those in the know---and the final nail in the coffin for the rest of us--- was the relaxation of lending criteria, which basically gave the lender the widest possible discretion, and the result was “soft loans” for those on the inside track. These loans included, 100% mortgages, interest only payments for designated periods, and the doozy of them all, “non-recourse” loans where the lender could not follow the borrower for any shortfall in the event of default. Basically this amounted to allowing them engage in zero risk gambling.
So schemes that were supposedly meant to encourage money out of “lazy” investments and into job creation etc. were now reduced to being vehicles for a small coterie to “get rich quick”.
Reilly’s investment in the “nursing home”, that has received much publicity, appears to have been a tax 'liability minimising' venture. Hogan took advantage of “soft loans” to build up property investments worth €1.2 million in the twinkling of “Fingers” eye. Is it remotely conceivable that politicians, savvy and well educated, did not realise that their activities were exposing the country to serious risks? The “non-recourse” loans mentioned meant that the lender had only recourse to the property bought with the loan extended; they could not go after any other assets of the borrower should the value of the property be less than the amount borrowed ---exactly what happened here when the market collapsed.
However someone was going to have to pick up the tab for this and as we now know it was we, the taxpayer, who got lumbered with the shortfall, the speculating borrowers donned a smug smirk of contentment at their good fortune of being allowed to gamble---but with someone else taking the risk. While ideology came up with the ideas, government made it possible---and that includes the opposition, Reilly and Hogan clearly knew all about this shenanigans---and the banks then funded our financial nightmare.
And what of the other charge levied---conflict of interest. Can a politician with investments in highly speculative vehicles be trusted to make decisions in the common good where that conflicts with the interest of those investments? Reilly’s investments for example had an additional dimension in that he was speculating on a development that contained a private nursing home. Would he introduce necessary rules and regulations to best serve the overall healthcare system if that would harm the prospects of the private nursing home that he had money tied up in? Let me tell you a wee story here as you ponder that.
Last year HIQA visited 6 nursing homes in and around the constituency of Minister Hogan. The reports were worrying as the facilities fell down in a number of key areas; not least of which was the requirement to ensure that each roster had at least one medically trained person in the complement---a nurse was the usual requirement. That is laid down in the regulations here---and indeed almost everywhere else that bothers to regulate these facilities. Hogan approached Reilly seeking a solution other than ordering the homes to come to compliance claiming that to do so would see them having to close down.
Within a very short period Reilly changed the regulations by way of statutory instrument to essentially delete the requirement of a nurse’s presence at all times. This is a significant reduction in standards brought in by a Minister who repeatedly stated that his first priority is at all times to ensure “patient safety”. In his last interview here in Sligo, he implied that this “patient safety” was a factor in his continued failure to honour his commitment to restore cancer services to Sligo General. What exactly inspired this dramatic departure from the “deeply held concern for patient safety” position is open to speculation, but HIQA’s responses to queries on the matter were brusque, if not downright sniffy. “Dear Mr O’Sullivan,
Thank you for your email. The Authority can confirm that the Department of Health have issued revised regulations but it is the Authority’s policy not to comment on articles in the media. The revised regulations are available on the Department of Health’s website at www.dohc.ie/legislation/statutory_instruments/pdf
Health Information and Quality Authority
When further pressed to confirm that patient safety was not compromised at the facilities involved, the reply was even terser; “Dear Mr O’Sullivan,
The Authority can confirm that the Department of Health have issued revised regulations but it is the Authority’s policy not to comment on articles in the media.
One further point needs to be made in all of this---a cursory review of the Dail Register of Members Interests (2006) shows entries contain words such as “Landlord, rented, let, investment property” etc, with alarming regularity. In short, a lot of TDs sought to enrichment via property. So how such an assembly could be expected to make decisions on such vital matters as “social housing” for example---which might cut across the interests of their investments and ownership of private property---purely in the interest of the common good is hard to fathom? It is as if the culture of mé feinism set out, and successfully, drew them in so as to precisely thwart any breaking of ranks on such issues---but who knows.
In any event, history shows that where ethics and money come into conflict, money always wins---and even more depressingly, vested interests are not renowned for willingly divesting themselves unless there is sufficient authority to compel them to do so---and in this regard, we rely on bafflegabber Enda.
A wag sometime ago suggested that as far as the general body of TDs are concerned “ethics is a county in the South of England” As we peer into the abyss, made in the main by that same general body of politicians, that appears now a little less funny somehow.